Fishing for roe-herring off the British Columbia coast

Story and Photos by Suzanne Ahearne

For Canadian In-Flight magazine

On the bridge of the Ocean Destiny, skipper Al Franseschini leans over the wheelhouse, watching 30 other seine boats circle impatiently, like dogs preparing a place to lie down. One of Canada’s most fast-faced and profitable fisheries is about to begin. At the sound of the airhorn, the boats will have 20 minutes to jostle around a three-square-kilometre area, setting out a half kilometre circle of net.
   Over the VHS radio, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans official announces another half-hour ‘stand down’ before fishing can begin. Franseschini shouts the news down to his anxious crew. He consults the sonar, peering intently at a solid red blob on the screen indicating tens of thousands of tons of herring. He turns down the volume on the radio. The hubbub hushed, he pops a few more Tums into his mouth and prepares to wait it out again.
   Every spring off British Columbia’s coast, a fleet of seine boats—the largest in the fishery—convenes in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland to participate in the first of the season’s roe-herring harvests. It is a high-stakes gamble and not for the faint of heart. A license can cost $100,000 to lease (half the fishers are still owner-operators), but it can pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single day. Or, as with the Destiny last season, a licensee can leave the fishing grounds with nothing.
   In the 1960’s, continual drops in the price of herring led predictably to rampant overfishing, bringing the stock dangerously close to destruction—and, finally, a complete ban on fishing. After about a decade, the fishery reopened. This time, the harvest was sold exclusively to the Japanese for its roe, rather than for pickling or as kippers. The tiny eggs, symbolizing fertility and prosperity to Japanese connoisseurs, brought a boom to B.C.’s ailing fishing industry and, last year, the roe-herring catch netted $70million for the provincial economy.
   Most of the boats here now have spent two weeks waiting for the roe to ripen. They try to harvest the fish when the eggs are at maximum maturity, but before they spawn into the ocean, where the eggs become attached to grasses with the milt from the male herring.
   Today, the eggs are ready—but the fish are swimming in a huge ball, too big to fish. If every boat made a large catch, they would go over quota.
   Finally, a group is scared off from the ball. A blast from the DFO airhorn is heard.
   The boats spin around each other, horns blowing, playing chicken to scare others from position it is a pandemonium that frequently ends with collisions between the most stubborn.
Ocean destiny has made a good ‘set’ this time. As the net is ‘pursed’, the bottom gathered in to form a purse shape, water inside the circle vibrates with the fish trapped and darting around inside.
   Now it will take 10 hours to ‘dry up’ the nets—a gathering in of the nets until the fish are tightly packed. By floodlight, men on Ocean Destiny and its partner boat, Taaska, work until midnight, pumping the silvery, iridescent fish aboard several packing boats.
   Then, they head back to harbour in Comox with 305 tons of herring—enough fish to just about fill the cabin of a jumbo jet. Next week, farther north, they will do the same again.