The science and art of the Haida's connection with herring

Fish mean many things to many different people throughout BC. To commercial fishermen, they are a livelihood. To ecologists, they are an important part of the marine ecosystem. And to the many coastal First Nations peoples, they are an important source of subsistence and an integral element of culture.

While salmon are usually touted as the kings of the Pacific coast, for the Haida Nation of Haida Gwaii, an island chain off the coast of Prince Rupert, herring reign supreme.  

Herring, and the Haida to whom they mean so much, have been the focus of the recent work of Dr. Mimi Lam, a research associate at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, on how to develop better fisheries management policy. Lam and others presented their work at a recent event called “Herring People,” at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.

One of the things that makes effective fisheries management challenging is that there are many different stakeholders in the management process who bring many different perspectives to the conversation, and these perspectives often conflict.

April White

The Haida Nation have repeatedly clashed with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) over the management of the Haida Gwaii herring stock, winning a federal injunction in 2015 that blocked the reopening of a herring roe fishery in their territory.

Much of this conflict revolves around the fact that the existing DFO policy gives more weight to economic considerations than ecological or cultural ones.

Further complicating the issue, the majority of commercial fishing and processing outfits that operate in fisheries around Haida Gwaii are based in the lower mainland. This means that the Haida do not receive much economic benefit from the presence of the fishing industry.

In their approach to improving the way the Haida Gwaii herring fishery is managed, Lam and her team combined ecosystem science with accounts of individual and community values. This is to create a balanced and informative picture of the state of fisheries management for policymakers.

April White

“What we want to try to do is to come up with a methodology where we help people articulate their values and their knowledge and their preferences as to how they think the herring fishery should be managed,” she said.

The team began their work in 2015 with community workshops where Haida community members and commercial fisherman alike were asked about their values concerning fishing. They were also asked about their preferences on proposed alternate fishery management plans.

Of all the options for alternate fishery management plans, the most preferred was one that would prevent commercial herring fishing from returning to the area. This would allow the herring population to rebound and it guarantees a food source for the humpback whale population making a recovery there.

Not only did Lam and her team adopt a novel approach to fisheries management, they also took a different tack when it came to communicating their results.

Instead of simply presenting their findings in a paper, Lam and the team partnered with April White, a Haida artist and UBC alumnus who created a series of handmade silk-screen prints to communicate some of the values endorsed by the community members during the team’s interviews.

Each print features a different herring-consuming predator depicted inside of a herring — a way of reflecting the nurturing role the fish plays for so many different organisms at all levels of the ecosystem.

By collaborating with White and promoting their work through events like “Herring People,” Lam and her team hope to be able to engage with a broader audience, and communicate in a way that is more accessible to those without a science background.

According to White, art possesses a unique storytelling power that science can stand to benefit from.

“Art has a voice where a scientist might not.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that a new herring roe fishery was blocked and that the preferred management plan was to end all commercial herring fishing in the area. The Ubyssey regrets these errors.