British Columbians will list the virtues of salmon (such as taste, resilience, cultural significance) until they’re out of breath. But how about doing the same for herring?

Despite the salmon’s designation as B.C.’s provincial fish, Iain McKechnie, a post doctoral fellow with the Hakai Network for Coastal People, Ecosystems and Management at Simon Fraser University, says the humble Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) has an equally rich history in this province.

Iain, a zooarchaeologist, researches how coastal peoples fished in the past by analyzing animal bones recovered from ancient First Nations villages and settlement sites. His recently published paper, based on research supported by the Hakai Program, highlights how herring bones are proportionally dominant at 171 archeological sites throughout coastal B.C. in a period spanning the last 10,700 years. He, and a team of archeologists, observe that herring was a culturally and economically important food source.

Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi)

Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi)

This is not to say that salmon doesn’t factor into this research at all. Indeed, salmon bones were also found at many sites, but it’s just that there were proportionally more herring than salmon bones. In years past, archeology data showed a proliferation of salmon bones, BUT it appears as though that’s because the scientists of the time were using wire mesh screens that were too big to contain the herring bones – they were falling through, making scientists think, “hmm, yes, coastal people ate a lot of salmon.” Now, we’re learning they ate a lot more herring!

While herring populations appear to have been abundant in the centuries leading up to the 20th century, overfishing likely led to their collapse in B.C. and Washington in the 1960s. The good news is they appear to be making a comeback, partly due to a commercial fishing closure, so Iain says herring could be a more sustainable seafood option compared to other types of fishes, like long-lived, slow-maturing rockfishes. However, the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program currently does not include Pacific herring on its list, as this fishery is currently being reassessed.

The archeological data suggests it is important to delve way back in time to really understand the ecological changes that have occurred over the past 200 years. Iain says that ongoing fisheries monitoring and data collection, by organizations such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada working with First Nations, will continue to be of utmost importance in herring management. He also says we need to change our perception of herring from just a fish that’s harvested for its roe for export, bait or for fish meal for salmon farms, to one that can be enjoyed locally as a source of food – just as in the past.

Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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One Response

  1. Bruce McCarter

    Hello Lain,

    If Pacific herring have 52-54 vertebrae and a 6-7 year old herring weighs ~ 0.33 lb
    and a 4 year old Sockeye salmon has 66-68 vertebrae and an average sockeye weighs ~ 6 lbs (most herring are smaller and sockeye larger).

    The weight ratio is approx 18:1
    18 herrings = 1 sockeye.
    The vertebrae ratios are pretty close….. so lets not quibble.

    So…. if early peoples were eating the same weight of sockeye as herring there should be at least, 18 times the number of vertebrae. Right ?

    For Chinook salmon it would be 60-80 times more.

    So why should it be a surprise that herring bones are “proportionately dominant” at archaeological sites ?

    There are also zillions of herring bones inside salmon stomachs (before gutting).

    Just a thought,


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