Published: February 17, 2014
Hundreds of herring were hanging from the rafters of native long houses when Captain James Cook first sailed along the coast of British Columbia in the spring of 1778. And First Nations people can be seen smoking the small silver fish over fires in an arresting painting by John Webber, the artist on the Cook’s expedition.
Native legends and place names also provide plenty of evidence that herring were far more common historically than they are today.
Now a team of archeologists has weighed in with a report that further elevates the status of the lowly fish.
The international team assessed data on almost half a million fish bones found at 171 archeological sites along the coast of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington.
“We found that one species, herring, was consistently the most abundant and ubiquitous fish in the 171 sites,” says Iain McKechnie, a post-doctoral fellow based at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University (SFU) and lead author of the report published Monday in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Herring was the consistent focus of the fishery for at least the last 2,500 years,” says McKechnie. The study of sites up to 10,00o years old also provides sobering “deep time” evidence of how the herring fishery, which was sustainable over the “millennia,” has been seriously depleted by industrial fishing since the late 1800s.
Herring have vanished from coastal areas around Vancouver and Victoria where the archeological evidence shows they were once plentiful. They have also disappeared from many traditional First Nations sites along the coast.
The archeological data was collected and analyzed as part of the SFU-based “herring school.” The researchers hope the data can enlighten and improve management of today’s dwindling and erratic herring populations that are controlled by the department of fisheries and oceans.
“One of the goals is to make the archeological history accessible,” says McKechnie, noting that the study brings together data that has been collected over the years but was “buried” in many different places, and is often only accessible to archeologists or heritage managers.
Herring are considered a “foundation” species in the Pacific coastal ecosystem because the fish are consumed by many birds and predatory fish and sea creatures. And there has long been debate about the cause of crashes and declines in herring populations.
Many observers point to commercial fisheries, which began in the late 1800s when herring were scooped up en masse to make fertilizer and fish oil. Today herring are caught mainly for their eggs or roe, which are a delicacy in Japan, and to be used as bait to catch other fish. Fisheries managers have argued that climatic changes and variations in predator abundance have been contributing to coast-wide declines in herring and lack of recovery in recent decades.
McKechnie and his colleagues suggest the simplest explanation, based on the archaeological data, is that the “difference between the modern pattern of variability in herring abundance and the long-term archaeological record is the onset of industrial-scale commercial fishing.”
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