Herring and Archaeology

Herring and Archaeology?

With so many environmental disasters facing us these days, sometimes it’s hard to

know where to put our energy to try to "make things right". For me, I am sometimes

consumed by sadness about the world’s loss of cultural and biological diversity. Because

I work closely with First Nations communities, often in remote places, I am daily faced

with how inter-twined and how significant these losses are.

In my current archaeological research, I am trying to actively blend my

commitment to the preservation of heritage with conservation of the natural world. In

particular, I am interested in incorporating archaeological evidence of resource use and

management with indigenous and local ecological knowledge, as a framework for

managing our resources today. These interests have recently converged in a study on

herring with Tla’amin First Nation, on the Sunshine Coast.

Herring, a once abundant and important component of our coastal ecosystems, is

severely threatened. In British Columbia, three of the five "management units’ are now

closed to fishing. Most Tla’amin and other coastal First Nations say that herring runs are

too small to make it worthwhile to fish or collect spawn. They attribute this dramatic

decline to over-fishing by seine boats in the 1980’s, when there were so many boats in

Tla’amin territory that "you could easily walk from boat to boat".

The past ecological and cultural importance of herring is echoed in the region’s

archaeological records, which indicate that in places like the Georgia Strait and the west

coast of Vancouver Island it was herring – not the now more popular salmon – that was

the primary food species. For many indigenous people, herring undoubtedly classifies as

a "cultural keystone species", because of its fundamental cultural importance.

Photographs, interviews, and oral traditions demonstrate that for generations, tons of

herring roe and the fish themselves were gathered each spring and dried in abundance to

be used throughout the year. Such abundance is also reflected throughout the coast by

place names such as "Tee Sho Shum" for the main Reserve of the Tla’amin First Nation,

meaning, "Milky waters from herring spawn".

Importantly, these white waters were the ecological signal that it was time to fish.

Modern fishing practices involve harvesting pre-spawn fish at sea for roe which is

exported overseas as a delicacy. At best, the male fish and the gutted females are ground

into meal. In contrast, indigenous fishers gathered herring in the spring in bays after

spawning. And although the roe was also collected and consumed, it was a fraction of

the spawn that was deposited. At Tla’amin, community members are frustrated and

insulted by the insistence of government fisheries managers that there was no long-term,

sustained herring fishery in their bays. This flies in the face of local knowledge, place

names, and preliminary archaeological work conducted by our team– all of which point

to the long-term cultural importance of reliable and abundant herring stocks.

In our current research, we’re bringing together fisheries ecologists, archaeologists

and Tla’amin researchers to systematically study the past abundance and diversity of

herring on the Sunshine Coast, and the long-term use and management of this important

resource. We’re mapping herring fish traps, digging cores in archaeological sites to

determine past abundance of herring, and extracting DNA from these herring bones to

determine genetic diversity of herring over time and space. Given the dramatic reduction

of herring today, and the reluctance on the part of Dept. of Fisheries to seriously engage

in management which supports herring abundance and diversity, the only way to begin to

document the spatial and temporal variability of herring is by combining indigenous

knowledge and archaeological data. Our goal is to present these data to Provincial and

Tla’amin fisheries managers with the hopes of improving future management of this

ecologically and culturally foundational species. It’s now or never. Now is good.