First Nations historical herring harvest offers “deep time perspective” to modern managers, SFU study says

SFU archaeologists
Iain McKechnie and Dana Lepofsky examine ancient herring fish bones that tell the story about how gigantic herring fisheries were for thousands of years in the Pacific Northwest. (SFU)

The herring, now dwindling on on the Pacific Coast, was once “superabundant” from Washington State through British Columbia to Alaska and that is a warning for the future, a new study says.

A team of scientists lead by Simon Fraser University argue that the archaeological record on the Pacific Coast offers a “deep time perspective” going back ten thousand years that can be a guide for future management of the herring and other fish species.

An archaeological study looked at 171 First Nations’ sites from Washington to Alaska and recovered and analyzed 435,777 fish bones from various species.

Herring bones were the most abundant and dating shows that herring abundance can be traced from about 10,700 years ago to about the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of Europeans and the adoption of industrial harvesting methods by both settlers and some First Nations.

That means herring were perhaps the greatest food source for First Nations for ten thousand years surpassing the “iconic salmon.” Herring bones were the most frequent at 56 per cent of the sites surveyed and made up for 49 per cent of the bones at sites overall.

The study was published online Monday, February 17, 2014, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Simon Fraser University researchers Iain McKechnie, Dana Lepofsky and Ken Lertzman, and scientists in Ontario, Alberta and the United States are its co-authors.

The study is one of many initiatives of the SFU-based Herring School, a group of researchers that investigates the cultural and ecological importance of herring.

“By compiling the largest data set of archaeological fish bones in the Pacific Northwest Coast, we demonstrate the value of using such data to establish an ecological baseline for modern fisheries,” says Iain McKechnie. The SFU archaeology postdoctoral fellow is the study’s lead author and a recent University of British Columbia graduate.

Co-author and SFU archaeology professor Dana Lepofsky states: “Our archaeological findings fit well with what First Nations have been telling us. Herring have always played a central role in the social and economic lives of coastal communities. Archaeology, combined with oral traditions, is a powerful tool for understanding coastal ecology prior to industrial development.”

The researchers drew from their ancient data-catch concrete evidence that long-ago herring populations were consistently abundant and widespread for thousands of years. This contrasts dramatically with today’s dwindling and erratic herring numbers.

“This kind of ecological baseline extends into the past well beyond the era of industrial fisheries. It is critical for understanding the ecological and cultural basis of coastal fisheries and designing sustainable management systems today,” says Ken Lertzman, another SFU co-author. The SFU School of Resource and Environmental Management professor directs the Hakai Network for Coastal People, Ecosystems and Management.

Map of First Nations sites with fish bones
Map of First Nations’ archaeological sites with high numbers of fish bones. Herring is abundant in sites throughout the Strait of Georgia. In 71% of sites, herring makes up at least 20 per cent of the bones found at the site. (SFU/PNAS)

Heiltsuk tradition

The paper says that the abundance of herring is additionally mirrored in First Nations’ place
names and origin narratives. They give the example of the 2,400-y-old site at Nulu where herring
made up about 85 per cent of the fish found in local middens. In Heiltsuk oral tradition, it is Nulu where Raven first found herring. Another site, 25 kilometres away at the Koeye River, has only has about 10 per cent herring remains and is not associated with herring in Heiltsuk tradition.

(In an e-mail to Northwest Coast Energy News, McKechnie said “there is a paucity of archaeological data from Kitimat and Douglas Channel. There is considerable data from around Prince Rupert, the Dundas Islands and on the central coast Namu/Bella Bella/ Rivers Inlet area and in southern Haida Gwaii.”)

The study says that the archaeological record indicates that places with abundant herring were consistently harvested over time, and suggests that the areas where herring massed or spawned were more extensive and less variable in the past than today. It says that even if there were natural variations in the herring population, the First Nations harvest did not affect the species overall.

It notes:

Many coastal groups maintained family-owned locations for harvesting herring and herring roe from anchored kelp fronds, eel grass, or boughs of hemlock or cedar trees. Herring was harvested at other times of the year than the spawning period when massing in local waters but most ethnohistorical observations identify late winter and springtime spawning as a key period of harvest for both roe and fish.

The herring and herring roe were either consumed or traded among the First Nations.

Sustainable harvests encouraged by building kelp gardens,wherein some roe covered fronds were not collected, by minimizing noise and movement during spawning events, and by elaborate systems of kin-based rights and responsibilities that regulated herring use and distribution.

Industrial harvesting

Industrial harvesting and widespread consumption changed all that. Large numbers of herring were harvested to for rendering to oil or meal. By 1910, the problem was already becoming clear. In that year British Columbia prohibited the reduction of herring for oil and fertilizer. There were reports at that time that larger bays on the Lower Mainland were “being gradually deserted by the larger schools where they were formerly easily obtained.”

But harvesting continued, in 1927 the fishery on eastern Vancouver Island, Columbia, processed
31,103 tons of herring. The SFU study notes that that is roughly twice the harvest rate for 2012 and would also be about 38 per cent of the current herring biomass in the Strait of Georgia.
In Alaska, reduction of herring began in 1882 and reached a peak of 75,000 tons in 1929.

As the coastal populations dwindled, as with other fisheries, the emphasis moved to deeper water. By the 1960s, the herring populations of British Columbia and Washington had collapsed. Canada banned herring reduction entirely in 1968, Washington followed in the early 1980s.

In the 1970s, the herring population off Japan collapsed, which opened up the demand for North American roe, which targeted female herring as they were ready to spawn. That further reduced the herring population so that the roe fishery is now limited to just a few areas including parts of the Salish Sea and off Sitka and Togiak, Alaska.

The First Nations food, social and ceremonial herring fishery continues.

Government fishery managers, scientists, and local and indigenous peoples lack consensus on the cumulative consequences of ongoing commercial fisheries on herring populations. Many First Nations, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other local fishers, based on personal observations and traditional knowledge, hypothesize that local herring stocks, on which they consistently relied for generations, have been dramatically reduced and made more difficult to access following 20th century industrial fishing

Deep time perspective

The SFU study says that some fisheries managers are suggesting that the herring population has just shifted to other locations and other causes may be climate change and the redounding of predator populations.

But the study concludes, that:

Our data support the idea that if past populations of Pacific herring exhibited substantial variability, then this variability was expressed around a high enough mean abundance such that there was adequate herring available for indigenous fishers to sustain their harvests but avoid the extirpation of local populations.

These records thus demonstrate a fishery that was sustainable at local and regional scales over millennia, and a resilient relationship between harvesters, herring, and environmental change that has been absent in the modern era.

Archaeological data have the potential to provide a deep time perspective on the interaction between humans and the resources on which they depend.

Furthermore, the data can contribute significantly toward developing temporally meaningful ecological baselines that avoid the biases of shorter-term records.

Other universities participating in the study were the University of British Columbia, University of Oregon, Portland State University, Lakehead University, University of Toronto, Rutgers University and the University of Alberta.



BC First Nations Opposition to Commercial Herring Fisheries supported by DFO

Fisheries minister ignored advice from own scientists

Oil spill caused “unexpected lethal impact” on herring, study shows

SFU study says spill hazards for Kitimat from tankers and pipelines much greater than Enbridge estimate

A study by two scholars at Simon Fraser University says that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project is much more hazardous to Kitimat harbour, Douglas Channel and the BC Coast than Enbridge has told the Joint Review Panel.

The study by Dr. Thomas Gunton, director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU and Phd student Sean Broadbent, released Thursday May 2, 2013 says there are major methodological flaws in the way Enbridge has analyzed the risk of a potential oil spill from the bitumen and condensate tankers that would be loaded (bitumen) or unloaded (condensate) at the proposed terminal at Kitimat.

Enbridge Northern Gateway responded a few hours after the release of the SFU study with a statement of its own attacking the methedology used by the two SFU scholars and also calling into question their motivation since Gunton has worked for Coastal First Nations on their concerns about the tanker traffic.

Combination of events

One crucial factor stands out from the Gunton and Broadbent study (and one which should be confirmed by independent analysis). The two say that Enbridge, in its risk and safety studies for the Northern Gateway project and the associated tanker traffic, consistently failed to consider the possibility of a combination of circumstances that could lead to either a minor or a major incident.

Up until now, critics of the Northern Gateway project have often acknowledged that Enbridge’s risk analysis is robust but has consistently failed to take into consideration the possibilty of human error.

As most accidents and disasters happen not due to one technical event, or a single human error, the SFU finding that Enbridge hasn’t taken into consideration a series of cascading events is a signficant criticism.

Overall the SFU study says there could be a tanker spill every 10 years, not once in 250 years, as calculated by Enbridge.

It also says there could be 776 oil and condensate spills from pipelines over 50 years, not 25 spills over 50 years as projected by Enbridge. (And the life of the project is estimated at just 30 years, raising the question of why the 50 year figure was chosen)

Enbridge track record

The study also bases its analysis of the possibility of a spill not on Enbridge’s estimates before the Joint Review Panel but on the company’s actual track record of pipeline spllls and incidents and concludes that there could be between one and 16 spills (not necessarily major) each year along the Northern Gateway pipeline.


Findings for Kitimat

Among the key findings for Kitimat from the SFU study are:

  • Enbridge said the possibility of tanker spill was 11.3 to 47.5 per cent over the 30 year life of project. The SFU study says the possibility of a spill within the 30 years is 99.9 per cent.
  • The SFU study says it is likely there will be a small spill at the Kitimat Enbridge terminal every two years.
  • The SFU study estimates that there will be eight tanker transits each week on Douglas Channel if the Northern Gateway project goes ahead and more if it is expanded.  (This, of course, does not include LNG tankers or regular traffic of bulk carriers and tankers for Rio Tinto Alcan)
  • The SFU study says that while Endridge did study maneuverability of tankers, it paid little attention to stopping distance required for AfraMax, SuezMax tankers and Very Large Crude Carriers.
  • The SFU study says Enbridge inflated effectiveness of the proposed tethered tugs and maintains the company did not study ports and operations that use tethered tugs now to see how effective tethering is.
  • The SFU says Enbridge’s risk analysis covered just 233 nautical miles of the British Columbia coast, where as it should have covered entire tanker route both to Asia and California, raising the possibility of a tanker disaster outside British Columbia that would be tied to the Kitimat operation.
  • Based on data on tanker traffic in Valdez, Alaska, from 1978 to 2008, the SFU study estimates probability of a 1,000 barrel spill in Douglas Channel at 98.1 per cent and a 10,000 barrel spill at 74.2 per cent over 30 year Gateway life. The Valdez figures account for introduction of double hulls after Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and notes that spill frequency is much lower since the introduction of double hulled tankers.
  • According to a study by Worley Parsons for Enbridge in 2012, the Kitimat River is the most likely area affected by an unconstrained rupture due to geohazards in the region. According to the Worley Parsons study, geohazards represent the most significant threat to the Northern Gateway pipeline system.

Flawed studies

The SFU scholars list a series of what they say are major methological or analytic flaws in the information that Enbridge has presented to the Joint Review Panel, concluding that “Enbridge significantly understates the risk of of spills from the Northern Gatway.

Enbridge’s spill risk analysis contains 28 major deficiencies. As a result of these deficiencies, Enbridge underestimates the risk of the ENGP by a significant margin.
Some of the key deficiencies include:

  • Failure to present the probabilities of spills over the operating life of the ENGP
  • Failure to evaluate spill risks outside the narrowly defined BC study area
  • Reliance on LRFP data that significantly underreport tanker incidents by between 38 and 96%.
  • Failure to include the expansion capacity shipment volumes in the analysis
  • Failure to provide confidence ranges of the estimates
  • Failure to provide adequate sensitivity analysis
  • Failure to justify the impact of proposed mitigation measures on spill likelihood
  • Potential double counting of mitigation measures
  • Failure to provide an overall estimate of spill likelihood for the entire ENGP
  • Failure to disclose information and data supporting key assumptions that were used to reduce spill risk estimates
  • Failure to use other well accepted risk models such as the US OSRA model


SFU reports that Enbridge provides separate estimates of the likelihood of spills for each of the three major components of the project:

      • tanker operations,
      • terminal operations,
      • the oil and condensate pipelines.

The SFU scholars say Enbridge does not combine the separate estimates to provide an overall estimate of the probability of spills for the entire project and therefore does not provide sufficient information to determine the likelihood of adverse environmental effects……

It notes that “forecasting spill risk is challenging due to the many variables impacting risk and the uncertainties in forecasting future developments affecting risk. To improve the accuracy of risk assessment, international best practices have been developed.”

Part of the problem for Enbridge may be that when the company appeared before the Joint Review Panel it has repeatedly said that will complete studies long after approval (if the project is approved), leaving large gaps in any risk analysis.

The SFU study may have one example of this when it says Enbridge did not complete any sensitivity analysis for condensate spills at Kitimat Terminal or the condensate pipeline.

Enbridge response

Enbridge responded by saying

Our experts have identified a number of omissions, flawed assumptions and modeling errors in the study and have serious concerns with its conclusions:
The spill probability numbers are inflated: The author uses oil throughput volumes that are nearly 40 per cent higher than those applied for in this project which also inflates the number of tanker transits using these inflated volumes
The pipeline failure frequency methodology adopted by Mr. Gunton is flawed, and does not approximate what would be deemed a best practices approach to the scientific risk analysis of a modern pipeline system
Mr. Gunton based his failure frequency analysis on a small subset of historical failure incident data. Why would he limit the source of his data to two pipelines with incidents not reflective of the industry experience and not reflective of the new technology proposed for Northern Gateway?
The study results are not borne out by real world tanker spill statistics. Based on Mr. Gunton’s estimates we should expect 21 to 77 large tanker spills every year worldwide while in reality after 2000 it has been below 3 per year and in 2012 there were zero.

Most of Enbridge’s rebuttal is a personal attack on Gunton, noting

We are very concerned about the misleading report released by Mr. Gunton, who was a witness for the Coastal First Nations organization during the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel process.
Mr. Gunton should have made his study available to the JRP process, the most thorough review of a pipeline that’s ever taken place in Canada. All of Northern Gateway’s conclusions have been subject to peer review, information requests and questioning by intervenors and the Joint Review Panel.

In response, Gunton told the Globe and Mail “the report took over a year to complete and it was not ready in time to be submitted as evidence before the federal Joint Review Panel which is now examining the proposed pipeline.”

Enbridge’s statement also ignores the fact under the arcane rules of evidence, any study such as  the  one from Simon Fraser had to be submitted to the JRP early in the process, while evidence was still being submitted.

The recent ruling by the JRP for closing arguments also precludes anyone using material that was not entered into evidence during the actual hearings.

That means that the SFU study will be ignored in the final round of the Joint Review Panel, which can only increase the disillusionment and distrust of the process that is already common throughout northwest British Columbia.