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For decades, conservationists on the West Coast have been calling for restrictions on the commercial herring fishery, an industry so efficient it counts its catch in tonnes.

The fishery hit its peak in the 1950s, when up to 250,000 tonnes of the shimmering silver fish were hauled in annually. But the relentless overfishing led to a collapse of herring stocks in 1967.

Stocks rebounded, but never returned to past heights. More recently, annual hauls have been 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes, as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) limits catches to 20 per cent of the estimated total biomass of herring stocks.

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But some argue even that is far too many fish.

Herring are known as forage fish because they are preyed on by so many other species, including humans. Whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, cod, salmon and sea birds all feed heavily on herring, making those small fish hugely important in the coastal ecosystem.

Because of that, First Nations have long been at the forefront of the fight to reduce the herring catch.

First Nations have been battling in the courts for the past two years to halt DFO's planned fisheries in the waters of Haida Gwaii, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island and on the Central Coast.

The Haida Nation won an injunction last week to stop fishing. The Heiltsuk, who set up blockades to stop commercial fishing on the Central Coast last year, have been trying to negotiate reduced fisheries this year. On the West Coast of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth lost a bid for an injunction, but in nearby Barkley Sound, the Tseshaht First Nation was celebrating after DFO called off a planned fishery that the band had threatened to blockade.

Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, says aboriginal groups such as his are not opposed to commercial fishing – but they are against any harvest that is not sustainable. And they do not think herring stocks can sustain the heavy pressure that DFO sanctions.

"At the end of the day, this is about herring," he said in a recent interview.

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"We believe herring haven't recovered enough and shouldn't be fished. And [DFO] should respect that," he said. "If [herring] do recover, based on our mutual agreement of what healthy stocks are, then we can go down the road of talking about a commercial fishery again."

The Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth and Tseshaht have very similar positions. They will support fishing, but only if there are no conservation concerns.

DFO has long regarded the herring population as being made up of a few really big stocks on the B.C. coast. It does test fisheries to get estimates of stock size in a general region and then decides how many fish can safely be harvested.

But Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries at the University of B.C.'s Fisheries Centre, says DFO may have it wrong, and that First Nations, which have long argued stocks are localized and need to be managed locally, the way individual salmon runs are, appear to have science on their side.

"It has been assumed that [herring] all mix together in what's technically called a meta-population in which they all flow together from different spawning sites. The alternative, which we now think is probably supported by evidence, is that the latest DNA sequencing techniques suggest they do home to a particular area," Dr. Pitcher said.

Herring, it turns out, return to the place they were spawned, just as salmon do.

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The United States manages its herring as localized populations, but DFO does not, sticking to the big meta-stock picture to justify fishing in places such as Haida Gwaii and off the West Coast of Vancouver Island even when stocks there are depressed.

"Canada's not up to date with the latest information," said Dr. Pitcher, who is leading a three-year research project on herring stocks in northern B.C. waters.

He said recent research is also suggesting that herring are far more important to the overall health of the coastal ecosystem than DFO's management strategy suggests.

Reduced catches of herring will be needed, he said, if salmon, cod, whales and other herring-dependent species are to thrive on the West Coast.

First Nations, drawing on traditional knowledge, have said that for years. Now Dr. Pitcher, at the cutting edge of fisheries science, is saying the same thing.

It is about time DFO listened.

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