The Current

Little fish, big impact: How the loss of herring hurts more than our oceans

Herring are a small fish that play a massive role in the marine ecosystem. We examine what its declining population numbers mean for the oceans — and us.

‘There used to be schools miles long. And now there's rarely schools more than a few hundred yards long’

All three Marine Stewardship Council-certified herring fisheries in Atlantic Canada have lost their MSC-sustainability certification as the forage fish continues to struggle. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

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For the first time in his 30-year career, a Nova Scotia fisherman sat out herring season. He did it because he's scared for the fish's survival. 

"There used to be schools miles long, and now there's rarely schools more than a few hundred yards long," Greg Egilsson, chairman of the Gulf Nova Scotia Herring Federation, told The Current.

"It's shrunk quite a bit. It's alarming. It's discouraging … It's like we're trying to catch the last one."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans considers most of the herring stock in Atlantic waters to be in the critical or cautious zone.

For the first time in his 30-year career, Nova Scotian fisherman Greg Egilsson didn't fish during herring season because he's concerned about the species' population decline. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Boris Worm, a marine conservation biology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says there aren't specific numbers to measure herring populations because the assessment methodology has changed so frequently over the last several years.   

But he said worries like Egilsson's are shared among scientists, industry professionals and conservationists alike.

"The sustainability concerns are just getting more pressing every year and maybe we've reached the thresholds where we really have to reconsider what we're doing with these fish."

In May, three Marine Stewardship Council-certified herring fisheries in Atlantic Canada lost their MSC-sustainability certification, which means product can no longer be sold with the MSC blue check mark that assures consumers the fisheries are sustainably managed.

Herring are among Canada's most valuable fishery exports. (Submitted by Cora Scott)

"They are so critical. They are a keystone species," Worm said.

The small silver fish, which usually don't exceed 46 centimetres in length, play a vital role in the marine ecosystem as a food source to several fish and seabirds. They're also a widely sought-after food item for humans.

"They're the bread and butter of the marine ecosystem. When they do well, they do really well and everybody else is doing well on them," the professor added.

Climate impact

Worm cited a handful of potential contributing factors to the declining herring numbers, such as overfishing, but argues that the biggest culprit works on a much wider scale.

"The productivity of the total marine environment on the East Coast is declining," he explained, noting that there are fewer nutrients and other organisms within the ecosystem that feed fish like herring.

"I think it is the climate and the effect it has on the whole marine food web."

We've got to give 'em a break.- Greg Egilsson

While steps like the one Egilsson took are profound, it will take more than that to mitigate the symptoms of climate change, the biologist said.

"If you look at the big picture like that, clearly something has to change at a larger scale and can't be left to individual fishermen to do the right thing. We all need to collectively decide … to bring them back."

Currently, the annual total allowable catch for the Quebec, the Atlantic provinces, and the Arctic is 20,000 metric tonnes, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Current asked the about the idea of reducing the fishing quotas for herring.

In a statement, the department said its decisions are based on the best available science, impacts on coastal communities, and its decision "to grant the total allowable catch ... is the result of extensive discussions among various stakeholders."

In the meantime, Egilsson says he will continue to do his part for a species he cares about.

"We've got to give 'em a break," he said.

"Hopefully, it's not too late."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Julianne Hazlewood, Anna Maria Tremonti, Mary-Catherine McIntosh and Geoff Turner.