Ensuring the Future of Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea

Herring are a small fish that play a big role up the food chain, and at the moment scientists don’t know nearly enough about their health status in the Salish Sea. That’s why SeaDoc funded a study that helped bring many top herring experts together for the first time–a crucial first step in ensuring their future.  

The team recently published a report, “Assessment and Management of Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea: Conserving and Recovering a Culturally Significant and Ecologically Critical Component of the Food Web,” which included the creation of a model that simulated how herring populations respond to key environmental stressors under various scenarios.

Urbanization and coastal development, predation, and compromised water quality were the top factors affecting population, and a range of priority actions and monitoring steps were identified. 

The model is a great first step, but the proactive creation of the Herring Assessment and Management Strategy Team will be crucial well into the future. The team consists of transboundary experts from government agencies in Washington and British Columbia, top social and natural scientists from universities, First Nations, and Tribes, and more.

“Given the importance of herring as salmon prey and therefore to orca recovery, we were very pleased to have included a wide variety of knowledge holders who care deeply about the Salish Sea ecology and management,” said Principle Investigator Tessa Francis, Puget Sound Institute, University of Washington, Tacoma.

As a food source, herring provide energy to lower trophic levels of the Salish Sea (egg predators) as well as to upper trophic levels (predators that eat larvae, juveniles, and adults). They are also a culturally important species for tribes and First Nations in the region, and are economically valuable to commercial fisheries in the Salish Sea.  

While herring biomass in the Strait of Georgia, BC, remains at historically high levels, many of the stocks in Puget Sound have declined over the past 40 years, with the greatest reduction (nearly 97%) occurring in the Cherry Point stock, once the most abundant in United States waters. In addition, herring have shifted their distribution in the Strait of Georgia, leaving many spawning sites in the south empty in favor of more northern areas.

“Herring are about as complex a species as you can find, subject to a whole range of threats throughout their lives,” said Francis. “There is a need to pull together broad sets of information into a cohesive framework to identify solutions not only for herring, but for the salmon and orca they support.”

Washington State developed a forage fish management plan in 1998 and a study panel was convened in 2013, but no specific strategies were developed to recover Pacific herring stocks in Puget Sound. This new, diverse, multi-institutional, transboundary recovery team represents a crucial first step in that process. The team hopes this effort will jump-start a process for developing a Herring Implementation Strategy, as well as inform recovery strategies developed by the Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.