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November 01, 2005
The Solovki Herring Festival is an annual summer event. Located off the shores of the Karelian territory of northern Russia in the White Sea, like the rest of Russia, the Solovki Islands have had a long relationship with herring.
According to memoirs of Daniil Zlatkin, a Russian secret service officer in the intelligence department on the Karelian Front in 1943, herring was used to torture prisoners sent to Russia’s first concentration camp: the monastery on Solovki Island which became part of the infamous Russian gulag housing “Red’s” enemies. During Zlatkin’s time at the camp, German prisoners were reportedly fed salted herring and left with no water overnight. The next day, the promise of water was used to make the parched and foaming-at-the-mouth prisoners sing.
The Solovki Islands’ monastery is now a major tourist attraction. Visitors and locals alike consider herring the mainstay of the Islands.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Far East Russian fishing fleets landings of Pacific herring supplied most of the country.
Today, herring’s popularity has only escalated in Russia, with value-added herring lining the shelves of supermarkets. Globefish, the unit of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Fisheries Department responsible for information on international fish trade, says herring is “the most Russian dish on the dinner table, and is consumed, ‘by every Russian’.”
Imports of Atlantic herring primarily from Norway make up a big chunk of Russia’s herring consumption. Rising fuel prices combined with its aging Pacific fleet keeps Pacific herring east of the Ural Mountains, while Atlantic herring feeds the western part of the region. A relatively new phenomenon, expansion of supermarket chains throughout Russia has led to a lucrative market for Norwegian processors focused on making value-added products out of Atlantic herring.
Russia isn’t alone in its insatiable taste for this small pelagic fish.
In Germany, matje (pronounced mat-yis) — unspawned herring — is consumed by “everybody” during the high season and is considered the “national dish” of the Netherlands. Norway is the main exporter of matje to both countries augmenting Denmark’s contribution as well as their own relatively small domestic catch.
According to the FAO, Atlantic herring is “the third most important species in terms of world catch levels.” In 2002, landings of Atlantic herring totaled approximately 2.6 million tons.
While Japan remains the top importer of herring roe, Russia, Poland, Croatia, Estonia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, and China appear as the top importers of frozen and/or processed Atlantic herring. Norway, Iceland, and Ireland have cornered the market on exports.
Russia is by far Norway’s best customer although it’s been rumored that the U.S. has courted the Russian market. The FAO states U.S. exports of Atlantic herring “jumped by over 70 percent to 47,000 [metric tons]” from 2001 to 2002.
The American consumer’s taste, however, seems to be limited to herring found in cans of sardines. According to the Gulf of Maine Aquarium, herring supports a $40 million cannery industry in Maine alone. But the Maine sardine industry has declined dramatically over the past century. Once nearly 75 canneries dotted the coast of Maine, but today is left only one: Stinson Cannery in Gouldsboro, now owned by Bumble Bee, LLC.
Bait & Switch
The rest of the Atlantic herring caught in U.S. and Canadian waters is used for bait in various fisheries. Lobstermen and recreational fishermen are big consumers of Atlantic herring.
Availability of bait has been one of the pivotal concerns raised by fishermen during the current discussions to amend the Atlantic herring Fishery Management Plan (FMP). The controversy is focused on whether mid-water trawlers are causing localized depletion of near shore herring spawning stocks. So deep is the controversy that it has even divided up the often close-knit New England lobster industry.
While the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is supporting measures that prohibit mid-water trawling for herring in areas closest to shore, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association believes the mid-water boats are their only hope for access to bait.
Bill Adler, Massachusetts Lobstermen Association’s executive director believes the cries against the mid-water trawlers are unfounded and politically driven. In a statement released to the membership, Adler cautions, “Whether we like or dislike mid-water trawlers, these are the boats that supply our bait.”
But despite the Association’s position, at the recent public hearing in Gloucester, Mass., members of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association sided with their Maine counterparts and testified against the organization’s stand fearing its support of mid-water trawlers is misguided and short sighted.
Fish Eat Fish World
In addition to its use as bait in various fisheries, herring is often turned into fish meal used for aquaculture. But some believe the expansion of the fish meal industry might have caused some of the problems in the herring fishery over the years.
In his capacity at the time as the Director General of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the Scotia-Fundy Region, R.A. Crouter states in a 1983 report to the FAO, “The expansion of the purse-seine fleet to serve the emergent fish-meal industry destroyed the balance between effort and resource maintained during the previous century.”
Crouter says the uncontrolled expansion of the fishery for fish-meal operations led to their adoption of quota-based management. Subsequently, says Crouter, the ensuing crisis developed out of the expansion of the fish-meal fishery which led to “the introduction of socio-economic considerations in quota management.”
In contrast, Crouter states, “because of relatively low catch rates, gillnetters and weirs were not included under this form of control until 1980.”
In 2004, Peru led in fish-meal manufacturing with 7.7 million tons produced (a 46 percent increase over 2003) with Iceland and Norway lagging behind it in grinding up herring to send to aquaculture and pet food facilities. Nearly 60 percent of fish-meal produced is exported primarily to China and other Asian countries.
Catching Herring at What Cost?
Humans aren’t the only species with a taste for herring. Studies show herring is an important prey for many other animals. A plankton feeder, herring transfers energy from primary and secondary production to species on the higher levels of the food chain.
Numerous studies site fish such as cod, pollock, haddock, silver hake, striped bass, mackerel, tuna, salmon, dogfish, short-finned squid; marine mammals like the harbor porpoise, harbor seals, gray seals, killer whales, baleen whales, white-sided dolphins, minke whale, fin whale, pilot whale; and, seabirds including the Atlantic puffins, razorbills, common terns, Arctic terns amongst herring’s predators. Worldwide 18 species of whales, 23 dolphins, 6 porpoise, 6 sea lion and 25 species of seal are reported to rely on small pelagic forage fish such as herring.
But no other predator’s needs has riled up fishermen as much as the bluefin tuna.
A valuable commercial and recreational fishery, bluefin tuna follow schools of herring. Fishermen blame the increase of industrial-scale fishing vessels for depleting and/or breaking up large schools of herring limiting tuna’s foraging possibilities and limiting its migration.
In recent years, New England’s tuna fishermen have led the formation of the CHOIR: Coalition fighting against industrial mid-water trawling for herring. The CHOIR Coalition was formed by fishermen in 2002, “to advocate for the responsible development of the Atlantic herring fishery.”
One Choir member, tuna fisherman Stephen Walima, based in Rockport, Mass., shared his concerns with the New England Fisheries Management Council during the recent public comment period.
Walima has been fishing for bluefin tuna steadily since 1995 and is concerned that the increase in the number of highly efficient mid-water trawlers fishing off New England waters has resulted in less and less herring on the fishing grounds keeping the tuna away. He said, “…when we did see [herring] they wouldn’t last because the mid-water boats would show up and clean them out.”
To address the problem, Walima supports measures that would keep mid-water trawlers out of the near-shore waters.
But a few hundred miles north, Canadian fishermen are concerned that industrial-scale purse seine vessels are causing the same exact problems that U.S. fishermen blame on the mid-water trawlers. Canadian laws prohibit mid-water trawling for herring but an industrial scale purse seine fishery was introduced in the 1960s.
Over the past five years, clashes between Canadian fishermen concerned about the status of the herring stocks and the industrial herring fishery have escalated leading to protests, blockades, injuries and arrests. Negotiations between fishermen on Prince Edward Island and the large seiners facilitated by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans have reached an impasse. In the meanwhile, the DFO has established a line closure keeping the purse seine fleet out to a depth of 20 fathoms.
Herring management is a major focus of numerous political bodies around the world, many of whom suggest the stocks are healthy, yet their own numbers suggest otherwise.
In the Baltic Sea, for example, total allowable catches have been steadily declining over the past two decades. According to the International Baltic Sea Fishery Commission (IBSFC), which provides its member countries with recommendations to be implemented in their respective fishery zones, long term management that is truly protective of the stocks has required a reduction in the total catch. For its part, IBSFC has reduced recommended catches for Atlantic herring.
On this side of the Atlantic, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering setting what it considers to be the Maximum Sustainable Yield for herring at 220,000 metric tons – down from 317,000 metric tons. In its public hearing document, the Council stated recognizing the scientific uncertainty associated with the most recent stock assessment for the reduction.
More and more, scientists are advocating for management bodies to proceed cautiously when determining herring catches, if for no other reason than to accommodate the recovering predators of this fish.
A 2003 study published in Conservation Biology entitled Considering Other Consumers: Fisheries, Predators, and Atlantic Herring in the Gulf of Maine, sums up the scientific recommendations on herring management. The authors suggest it’s time for fishery managers to move beyond a single-species approach and instead, in their words, move progressively toward formal consideration of trophic relationships.
In his comments to the New England Council, Scott Hall, research coordinator for the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program in Belfast, Me., sees the situation affecting birds of concern.
“In general, the proportion of herring in tern diets has been declining since the mid-late 1990s. In fact, in 2005, no herring were observed in Arctic or Common Tern chick diets, while euphasiids accounted for 60 percent and 90 percent of the diet respectively,” says Hall. “Even though the sample sizes were smaller then, tern reproductive success was well below average in 2005.”
Hall cautions that, “a depleted herring fishery would cause considerable problems for breeding seabirds in Maine – including diminished reproduction and potentially smaller colony sizes. Several of these colonies support local eco-tourism activities, as the intrinsic value of watchable wildlife spreads and Maine’s coastal icon – the puffin — takes deeper root.”