The Life of A Fishing Family During the Herring Spawn

Sonia - March 13, 2016

Every year in early March, Shaun heads out herring roe fishing with Stewart, James, and a number of other fishermen from the False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf. It has always seemed like a pretty crazy, unpredictable fishery to me. The weather is usually dramatic with gales, heavy rain, hail, and then sometimes, beautiful sun. Such is March in the Salish Sea.

An exhausted Shaun takes a rest on the gunwhale of the herring skiff this week. James works the net as hungry seagulls flock overhead.

But then the nature of herring roe sustainable fishing is also unpredictable. In order to harvest the herring when the roe is ripe (and, therefore, of highest quality) you want to wait until the males begin to spawn. In areas with strong herring populations, herring school up by the millions at spawning time and the sea turns a milky white colour with the herring sperm. Then the time is right for the the females to lay their eggs, meaning the roe will be ripe.

At this time of year, the herring are harvested just for their roe and the flesh of the fish is not considered as desirable for consumption as it is during the food herring fishery in fall. And since herring roe fishery quotas are largely owned and leased out by big fishing companies who sell offshore to asian markets, we don’t have the opportunity at this time to provide herring nor roe to our CSF members. But perhaps one day soon we will find a way!

To monitor the progress of the herring migration and spawn, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) flies airplanes over the spawning grounds. It’s easy to see the spawn from above. The DFO releases data to let fishermen know when the time is right to go fishing. So from late February until the end of March, Shaun is on call. He spends a few days down at the wharf getting gear ready, prepping the nets and the boat, and packing food and his personal belongings onto the herring skiff that will be his home for a week or two. The fishermen are expected to be ready to leave at a moments’ notice when the herring begin their spawn.

There’s always a lot of gossip and predictions about how the herring will be this year. And with it, a lot of head scratching and wringing of hands as I tried to plan our month. “Will you be here for parent conferences next week?” I ask foolishly. I should know by now, the answer to any question about where Shaun will be during the month of March is necessarily prefaced with “Well, if I’m out herring…” And so we wait, and we plan loosely around the uncertainty.

This year, on March 5th, Shaun got the call that they would be leaving first thing on Sunday, March 6th. The kids and I bid farewell amid Oliver (our 7 year old’s) usual begging to be allowed to go along fishing. “Not this time, buddy,” Shaun said. “Herring fishing is rough, dangerous work. There’s no place for kids on a herring skiff.” But Shaun promises that Oliver will go salmon fishing again this summer and that seems to appease him. We wave from the front porch as Shaun heads to the wharf, and we return to our Sunday morning pancake breakfast, making adjustments to our schedules for a week or two as a single-parent family.

It’s been an interesting week, but we’re all doing ok. Periodically, Shaun gets into cell range while he has dry hands for a moment. He snaps a photo or two, sends a text or makes a quick call to let us know he’s ok. But the work is not conducive to long conversations. They work day and night in the rain, and wind, setting the gillnet and hauling it in. They wear ear protection to dampen the noise of the “beater bars” that shake the herring out of the nets; herring which cascade down — scales, slime, roe, and all — onto the slickers of the fishermen working on deck. Shaun says there are moments after hours of work in the dark, icy rain and sleet when a herring smacks you in the side of the head and you’re not sure wether to laugh or curse. The fishermen then hurry to push the herring into the ice-filled holds, carefully balancing the weight evenly between the holds so as not to capsize the boat.

Day 2 of this year’s herring fishery and Shaun is already pretty slimy!

Meanwhile, the kids and I continue about our lives heading to school and work. This year, we were struck by a bout of the stomach flu, made all the worse by not having daddy around to help us out. But we survived. And Shaun and the herring crew had to sit a night out taking shelter in a harbour at Hornby Island as gale force winds whipped down the straits. Sometimes when I think about all those men crowded onto a herring skiff, covered in herring slime and bobbing at sea in gale force winds, I’m not sure it’s so different than having a bout of stomach flu . . .

Stewart and James sorting nets while they wait out a storm this week.

And so it’s Sunday again as we head into the second week of the herring fishery. Whenever Shaun does come home, he’ll be coated in sparkling herring scales that look like sequins when they catch the sun. He’ll also be reeking of rancid herring oil, diesel fumes, and wet rubber work gear. Even though I’ll make him shave his beard and strip down outside like I do every year before he can come in, I’ll still be finding herring scales around the house for weeks to come. But he’ll be happy to be home, and we’ll be happy to have him home, filled with stories for the kids about being a fisherman and about sea lions, marine birds, and the miraculous coastal ecosystems in BC we’re so fortunate to be part of.

Sonia - March 13, 2016

Back to blog

The Life of A Fishing Family During the Herring Spawn

Sonia - March 13, 2016

Pledge your support and become a member to enjoy the freshest fish in BC!

Sign up now