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Sardine Harvest a Threat to Mighty Humpbacks?

Alarms by BC scientists, tour operators don't convince DFO.

Tom Sandborn 19 Sep

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

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Whalers killed the last humpback whale in the Georgia Strait off the mouth of the Fraser River in 1907. Now, the humpbacks are returning to the Strait, and to other BC waters.

But whale researchers and whale watching operators are questioning whether a revival of a different kind -- an expanded fishery for pilchards (Pacific sardines) mandated this year by the DFO -- could threaten the return of the humpbacks.

Both the humpbacks and the pilchards have been observed in increasing abundance along the BC coast in recent years. The humpbacks are a particular boon to the whale watching industry along the coast, as their dramatic breaching behaviour, long, wing-like fins and dramatic "lunge feeding" combine to make the 40-ton leviathans among the most picturesque of the world's whales.

The humpback was hunted to near extinction during the 20th century. Currently, the humpback population of the North Pacific is estimated around ten thousand animals, up from a remnant population of only a thousand whales when whaling stopped in the 1960s.

Many observers link their reappearance along BC's coast to the comeback of pilchard populations over the same time span. Researchers are still investigating the relationship between pilchards and humpback whales, but many believe that the small fish make up an important element in the marine mammals' diet.

Ramped up catch limits

Pilchards, which once sustained a major fishing industry from Mexico to Alaska (and fed the canning industry John Steinbeck portrayed in Cannery Row) had almost disappeared by the end the 20th century, in part because of over-fishing and in part because of poorly understood natural cycles of abundance. At any rate, the pilchards are back in large numbers along our coastline, and the humpbacks seem to have come back with them.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been gradually ramping up a commercial fishery on the increased pilchard stocks since 2002, and for the 2005 season (set to run from July 11 of this year until Feb. 9 of 2006 along the BC coast) the number of boats licensed to fish for pilchard has been doubled from last year's 25 to 50 for this season, with a maximum catch of 17,903 metric tones of fish to be taken.

Dr. Jim Darling, a whale scientist with the Pacific Wildlife Foundation, told The Tyee he is worried that this expanded fishery could drive humpbacks out of BC waters to areas where their food supply is more abundant.

Fears of net entanglements

"There is very limited scientific information available to define the extent of this conflict," Darling said. "However, it is quite clear the behaviour of the humpbacks is tied to the abundance and behavior of the fish. There is not only a potential conflict over the resource, but also, if fishing is allowed amongst the whales, the potential for net entanglements increases -- a significant problem in other parts of the world."

Darling warned that imprudent expansion of the fishery could damage local whale watching, a multi-million dollar eco-friendly business helping to shore up economies of small towns on the outer coast of Vancouver Island.

DFO spokespeople say Darling has nothing to worry about. Sandy McFarlane, a sardine expert with the Department, told The Tyee that the 2005 opening on pilchards, even with twice as many boats on the water, is still a very small fishery. "The size of this fishery would not have any impact on humpback whales," he said.

Lisa Miachika, Pelagic Resource Manager for DFO on the Pacific coast told The Tyee the Department was sure that there was enough pilchard biomass in BC waters to support the proposed fishery.

"We are expanding this fishery very slowly," she said. "We certainly wouldn't say that this represents over-fishing. We don't see any conflict at this time."

Income for sockeye fishermen

Don Pepper, executive director of the Canadian Pacific Sardine Association (an industry umbrella group) is also reassuring on the question of a possible conflict between the pilchard fishery and the continued presence of humpback whales in BC waters.

"We've got more pilchards than the humpbacks could ever eat. I maintain we've got 200 to 300 thousand tonnes in Canadian waters. This is a clean fishery, with hardly any byecatch. We're opening up new markets in China, Russia, Ukraine and Poland, and this will provide some income for fishermen who aren't able to make any money on sockeye," he told The Tyee in a phone interview.

By September 7, according to Miachika, the BC fishery had landed approximately 1.4 thousand metric tonnes of pilchards, with only 9 of the allowable 50 boats so far participating in the fishery. However, she said she expected the number of boats and volumes of fish caught to pick up soon, although she does not expect the entire total allowable catch, set at 17,903 metric tones, to be landed by the end of the season.

'Still endangered'

Other environmentalists and figures within the whale watching industry, however, echoed Jim Darling's concerns, and raised questions about the quality of DFO science and management decisions.

Dr. Paul Spong, whale researcher on the BC coast since 1970 and the director of Orca Lab, a land-based whale research station on Hanson Island at Blackney Pass, told The Tyee that an expansion of the pilchard fishery didn't make sense. "Humpbacks are still endangered," Spong said.

Kati Martini of Remote Passages, a whale watching operation in Tofino, told The Tyee that the arrival of significant numbers of humpbacks in BC waters over the last decade has been great for her industry.

"We're watching humpbacks as often as gray whales now. They're larger than the grays, and more active at the surface, jumping and breaching," she said. "DFO should question the whole idea of an industrial fishery on pilchards. The recovery of these fish is not well understood. We have a challenge getting DFO to see the relationship between the pilchards and the whales."

Whale watching nets millions

Any negative impacts on the whale watching industry caused by a pilchard fishery expansion could have major implications for the economic health of BC's coastal communities, Jamie Bray, owner of Jamie's Whaling Station in Tofino, told The Tyee.

"There's way more money in whale watching than in a few cans of sardines," he said. "The industry brings in over eight million dollars a season on this coast. Spin off effects probably triple that benefit."

Bray said whale watching currently supports close to 30 companies on BC coast.

Marine researcher Alexandra Morton called for studies by experts outside the DFO on the relationship between pilchards and humpbacks in BC, as did Vicky Husband, BC Conservation Chair for Sierra Club Canada. "Pilchards are a critical forage fish," said Husband. "If we want to support the return of the humpbacks, we should move extremely carefully, especially in a time of ocean warming and extreme uncertainty."

Whale biologist Jim Darling says the DFO officials have heard the concerns he and others are voicing. "So far," Darling said, "discussions with DFO have been amiable, with the seeming attitude of 'Let's see if we can define the potential problem and resolve it,' rather than butting heads."

Vancouver journalist Tom Sandborn is an occasional contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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