What’s Happening to the Humble Herring?

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For the past three weeks, a great tragedy has been unfolding along the eastern shores of the Bay of Fundy. Dead herring are washing up on beaches from east of Yarmouth to north of Digby. For those from “away,” this is in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which since time immemorial is unceded Mi’kmaq territory.

Darren Porter, a local weir fisherman, is an informed advocate for the health of the Fundy, Minas Basin and Cobequid Bay. Porter is a founding member of the Fundy United Federation, 1 a think-tank of scientists, people with profound experiential knowledge, and allied organizations concerned about regional marine life conservation, protection of habitat and sustainable and traditional fisheries, and food sovereignty.

For almost three weeks, Porter has been Fundy United’s “point-man” for people concerned about the future of the humble herring in western Nova Scotia. His phone has been ringing non-stop. He is bombarded with emails and texts from ordinary people alarmed at seeing the beached dead herrings. Porter estimates that more than 100,000 herring have already been found dead along the shore.

The Government of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is the agency responsible for protection of the Fundy shore and fisheries. DFO began investigating on November 22nd, after several reports of dead and dying herring. Darren Porter has been in daily contact with them, reporting on this awful situation.

The beautiful Bay of Fundy has a magnificently abundant marine life. Many people make a portion or all of their livelihoods from sustainable fisheries on the Fundy. It is also a tremendous eco-tourism attraction for both provinces abutting the Bay, as well as the north coast of Maine. Many come to the Fundy to see the “highest tides in the world,” and enjoy the beaches, trails, ferry ride, views, quiet resorts and bed-and-breakfasts, farmers’ markets, and gourmet wineries. There are also many recreational fishers on the Bay.

Whatever happens to marine life and health on one side of the Fundy impacts the economies and communities in the provinces on both sides. And, both the Government of New Brunswick (GNB) and the Government of Nova Scotia (GNS) have fisheries and environment departments.

Although one might assume that DFO or GNS would inform GNB, so far there is no evidence that GNB is concerned about this crisis.

Perhaps even worse, GNS does not seem deeply invested in the future of Humble Herring, Bay of Fundy fisheries in general or food sovereignty. On August 23, 2016, GNS Environment Minister Margaret Miller was nonchalant on fishery issues, telling Fundy United 2 that “Resources evolve – there was once 3000 farms in Nova Scotia and now there are only 300.” The question arises: is GNS forgetting that local fishers, farmers and tradespeople are what keep communities together in our rural Maritime areas?

Quite simply, more than three weeks after of massive die-offs, the abutting provinces are not really engaged in solutions. DFO appears no closer to identifying the cause of this mysterious crisis.

This backgrounder compiles information from community members, especially from the Fundy United organization. It is being shared to help the Humble Herring, on whom so much depends.

About the Humble Herring

Atlantic Herring usually travel in huge, fast-moving schools around fishing banks and near the coast. These migratory fish feed on plankton and small sea creatures found near or on the surface of ocean waters. Larger surface fish follow and feed on the herring, so during the day, they swim below the surface. The herring move close to the surface when night comes and the danger of predators lessens.

herring-1“Herring feed everything,” says Darren Porter. “Without herring, we have a catastrophe on our hands.” Predators of herring include seabirds, marine mammals, and larger surface fish such sharks, tuna, salmon, striped bass, cod, and halibut. People also eat this oily fish: raw, fermented, pickled, smoked, salted, etc. Herring roe is valued by some. Herring are commercially important in another way: they are used for shellfish traps and pots.

“Based on work I have been doing in the Bay,” says Porter, “here is the breakdown on the stock:

  1. “The Bay is the nursery area for four stocks (populations), three of these spawn here, and one spawns along the Maine coast, which all contribute juveniles to the Bay.
  2. “A small stock, estimated at 500 metric tons spawns inside Minas Basin in Spring (April-May). These are the large herring caught in weirs and gill nets inside the Basin in spring.
  3. “A larger stock estimated at 50,000 metric tons spawns in Minas Channel (off Scots Bay) in August-September. These are the large fish the herring seiners go after in that region.
  4. “The largest stock of 100,000+ metric tons spawns on Lurcher Shoal off Yarmouth in the fall (October-November). These also are the herring that seiners and gill-netters take in that region. They want them for their eggs to ship to Japan.
  5. “Finally a stock spawns on the Maine coast south of Grand Manan, and make their way to the Bay of Fundy. I do not know much about this population but could find out if needed.
  6. “The adults of each stock are more or less in their spawning area once a year to reproduce. Then when it is not spawning period these stocks mix together and move all over the Bay and north along the Nova Scotia shore to Chedabucto Bay, where most overwinter.
  7. “The young from each stock hatch out and the larvae largely remain near their spawning site until they become small juveniles or ‘brit’. As the juveniles grow, they migrate around the Bay of Fundy concentrating for longer periods of time in the regions of upwelling (Minas Channel and Passage, the Passamaquoddy Bay Channels, and off Brier Island).
  8. “At this point, the stocks are mixed together but individual schools are largely stock and size discrete. For example, in Minas Passage there is a large concentration of ‘brit’ (1 year old juveniles) during fall, winter and spring (probably many stocks). In late winter and spring the adults that spawn inside Minas Basin migrate through both in and out. From May to July, a huge migration of what we call ‘June Herring’ migrate through the Passage, moving inward and outward, and very occasionally penetrating as far as Cobequid Bay. ‘June’ herring are 2-3 year old juveniles and probably a mixture of all the spawning stocks in the Bay of Fundy. It is these fish that concentrate around Passamaquoddy Bay in late summer-fall and are taken in the weirs there for the sardine factory at Blacks Harbour.

“In short though, I want to emphasize that our herring has been in the best shape lately that it has been for years. I know that the World Wildlife Fund found that two herring stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are in trouble, saying that predators are not being addressed adequately by DFO. However, those herring communities are quite distant from the current die-off.”

The Herring Troubles

Darren Porter estimates that well over 100,000 dead herring have beached on the eastern shore of the Bay of Fundy in the past three week. From what he has seen, it is pretty much all adults that are coming on the beaches dead or dying.

Many concerned people have commented that the number of dead herring in Nova Scotia is much higher than what has been reported, because many dead animals would have disappeared beneath the waves or been eaten by crows and gulls.

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In an November 30 2016 Digby Courier article, University of Saskatchewan wildlife biologist Dr. Ted Leighton poses the question, “What percentage of the fish is washing up? Is this one percent, five percent? No one knows. But it’s a lot of fish. What part of St. Mary’s Bay is affected? And now the Annapolis Basin? It could be millions. It could be much more.” 3

“This amount of mortality doesn’t look like a parasite to me, but that will be easy to determine,” continues Leighton. “It could be some kind of toxic algal bloom, the Gulf of Maine is crazy warm right now. But again DFO will be able to test for all the known marine toxins. If it isn’t one of those easy to test for causes, we may never know.” One of the issues raised by Leighton and others is that it appears only the one species is affected. “But we don’t know if herring is the only species dying because we don’t know what is behind this or where it is happening,” he said. “Are other animals washing up in other places? We don’t know.”

Two shallow divers within the affected area have told Darren Porter they could “touch the herring in the water.” This is extremely abnormal for such a fast moving fish with evident awareness of the hazards of predation. As well, fishermen in the Minas Passage area report seeing fish swimming strangely. Other reports have noted seeing seagulls pick up herring in open water. Clearly, the herring are not behaving normally.herring-2

Community members who are reporting the beached dead herring are confounded by why so many are just lying there, not being eaten by scavengers. As some have pointed out, often an animal can tell if something is not fit to eat. Most agree it probably just looks like they are not being eaten because there are so many of them. Perhaps the gulls cannot keep up?

What We Know

Although we do not know what is causing this die-off, informed observers have listed a wide range of possible causes. These include:

  1. parasites
  2. noise from explosions such as seismic testing
  3. fishery by-catch or a dumped catch at sea
  4. predation, pushing them to shore
  5. contamination through toxins in the water, such as algae bloom, pollution runoff from herbicides and/or pesticides, an industrial sewage or chemical dump; leakage from Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station, etc.
  6. bacterial disease
  7. viral disease
  8. pressure on the species due to ocean acidity or higher temperature, due to climate changes
  9. lack of food
  10. environmental stress from in-stream tidal industry, including noise, vibrations, and pressure changes from turbines

Possible Cause 1 – Parasites

Parasites were strongly suspected by some because of the 1956 parasite infection that devastated the western Bay herring and some of the fish that eat the herring. In this case, the first round of tests done by DFO did not confirm parasites. DFO has now sent off samples to external labs with greater capacity. However, it looks unlikely that this is the cause.

Possible Cause 2 – Noise from Seismic Testing, etc.

Aside from the in-stream tidal turbines, it is not known if seismic activity or other very loud, very vibrational, industry has been occurring in the Bay of Fundy. There was some mention of work planned or underway to prepare the site on the other side of the Bay for the proposed TransCanada EnergyEast pipeline terminus, however it is not known if that could be relevant in any way, or if it is ongoing. The International Fund for Animal Welfare‘s research marine animals sensitivity to sound and vibration is summed up with “Anthropogenic noise interferes and overwhelms.” 4

Possible Cause 3 – Fishery By-Catch or Dump

Not likely a cause after three weeks of continuous beachings. Art MacKay from Fundy Tides 5on the New Brunswick side of the Fundy comments that he has seen research on “illegal catches, which are sold at sea, and if released, they can live for some time before they die.”

Possible Cause 4 – Predators

“I would go for ruling that out now, given the scope of the problem,” Biology professor Shawn Craik from Sainte-Anne University in western Nova Scotia said.6 Common sense also says it is not likely that predation is the cause. The herring are not reacting normally. As Porter said, divers have been able to reach out and touch herring, and fishermen have watched seagulls pulling live fish out of the ocean. This indicates a much more complex problem than predators.

Possible Cause 5 – Contamination through Toxins in the Water

Porter asked DFO if tests had been done on the water. He was told “that is the protocol,” but was not told if they had been done or not – nor, if so, what the results were. Hopefully this information can be forthcoming very soon. Dr. Craik also observed, “If there was a toxin getting into these fish and being passed on the scavengers, you would expect that someone, somewhere would find some dead gulls,” he said, adding that no such reports have come in (see footnote 6). MacKay also commented that Lepreau contamination is not a likely cause because Fundy Tides “did the current circulation for this, and it goes to Grand Manan on the ebb and the inner Bay on the flood.” However, all possible causes need thorough investigation.

Possible Cause 6 – Bacterial Disease

DFO has sent off sample fish for further study, but to date no one has suggested a bacterial infection that might actually have the seen effects. The point has been made by some concerned citizens that we may indeed be looking at something completely new. There is, however, a huge fish farming industry in Nova Scotia, accidents have been known to happen, and fish farms too frequently have problems with bacterial infections, which can spread to wild populations.

Possible Cause 7 – Viral Disease

This is another cause that some people strongly suspect. Viral Haemorrhagic Septicaemia Virus (VHSV) is also often a by-product of fish farms. On August 25, 2016, The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed that VHSV has been detected in wild Atlantic herring in Newfoundland and Labrador. 7 It remains to be determined by the further tests commissioned by DFO whether VHSV is the culprit, however most people who have reported seeing dead herring say they look healthy. Animals sick with VHSV usually do not look healthy.

Possible Cause 8 – Effects related to Climate Change on the Ocean

Prof. Ted Leighton was quoted above talking about the “crazy warm” temperatures we have been experiencing and it is well known that the ocean is rapidly becoming more acidic, for example. If this is the cause, it falls into the category of something entirely new and not seen before in human history. At this stage, Porter says, he has been assured by DFO that “nothing has been ruled out.” No stone can be left unturned with this crucial marine food-chain fish population.

Possible Cause 9  Lack of Food 

MacKay comments this is unlikely, having observed “Populations of copepods and krill in the Bay have been impacted in recent years, causing serious shifts in some marine species. Right Whales are actually the best indicator along with Phalarops. When they don’t arrive there is trouble. Actually this seemed like a good year.”

 Possible Cause 10 – Environmental Stress from In-Stream Tidal Power Industry

This is a difficult cause to assess for likelihood. On one hand, the dead herring we can see on the shores are quite distant from the location of the new Cape Sharp turbine installed at Minas Passage in early November. Some say this is irrelevant: we need divers to look at the Cobequid and Fundy bay floors to see how many dead fish have fallen down there.

Most significantly, the die-off started right after a new turbine was lowered into the Bay at Minas Passage area. So this possibility must be seriously investigated. To date, it seems to not be duly considered. “Fish die for many reasons when interacting with tidal turbines,” says Darren Porter. Although mortality from direct strike is a major issue, “actually the blades don’t have to hit the fish to kill them.”

Two years before the new turbine at Minas Passage was installed, the Vice-President of Fundy United Dr. Mike Dadswell challenged claims from the government and industrial proponents (GNS, FORCE, and Cape Sharp) that the installation would be environmentally friendly. In an October 2014 interview, Dadswell said, “there is no such thing as a ‘fish-friendly’ hydroelectric turbine,” and he “asks why Nova Scotia would risk collapsing a $100 million fishery.” 8

Dadswell is very familiar with the older tidal energy installation at Annapolis Royal. Regarding direct strike mortality, he recalls you can see a “wall” of seagulls come in when the turbines are in generating mode. 9 “Regardless of what they say” these two installations are very similar. Both are “axial-flow hydraulic-lift turbines,” although the one at Minas Passage spins a little slower. One difference is that Annapolis Royal has a tube entrance, where the Minas Passage turbine is open, but the opening is 16 metres across, backed by something with the impact of 1000 tonnes, moving at about 30 kph at the tip of the blades. From the herring’s perspective, he likens this to a person being hit by an 18-wheeler at 30 kph.

Herrings are particularly sensitive to noise, vibrations, and pressure changes.

  • Sound waves can have a multitude of negative effects on the herring’s sensitive physostomous swim bladders. They can create lesions or rupture swim bladders, which is what fish use to control the depth at which they are traveling in the water. For a general discussion of the impact of sound waves on fish with swim bladders, see this footnoted article from the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 10
  • Herring are also very susceptible to the pressure itself. Turbines generate power using a “pressure drop across the blade,” as Dr. Dadswell explains. “When fish are moving in the water, they have a certain amount of gas in their swim bladders, and when they come to turbines, pressure changes cause their gas bladders to expand rapidly” (see footnote 9). A report from Washington State University observes:

“If the pressure change happens too quickly the fish would be unable to control their buoyancy and, like an inexperienced scuba diver, would either sink to the bottom or float to the surface. During this time the fish would become disoriented and risk being caught by predators. In a worst-case scenario, severe pressure changes could cause internal hemorrhaging and death.” 11

  • The industry has designed the turbine to set off a warning noise, which they say will keep the animals out of the turbine. However, this noise could have another very serious outcome, if the herring get stressed and disoriented by the decibel level, etc.

The Minas Passage acts as nursery for the herring. Herring populations all the way up and down the Atlantic coast are at risk when the nursery area no longer has suitable habitat, and “one way or another” this turbine is “eventually going to crash the stock” (see footnote 9).

The crux of the matter, explains Darren Porter, is that DFO is not set up to monitor the impact of the new turbine that was installed less than two weeks before the die-offs began.

  • A major problem with evaluating the impact of the new tidal energy turbine in Minas Passage is that the proponent’s baseline data for the 2016 federal science review was very incomplete. 12
  • As well, the proponent’s monitoring plan to assess adverse environmental impacts was so poor that DFO issued a directive to submit a new and better monitoring plan by January 1st, 2017.

Why did the project go ahead without that baseline data and monitoring plan? GNS makes the decisions on project approval. Basically, DFO is in an arms-length consulting role to GNS on proposals like this. All questions from Porter about environmental monitoring – such as how well cameras are working, if the corporation has people walking the beaches as it is supposed to do, if the water has been tested for toxins, when divers will be sent to investigate the floor of the Bay, etc. – are met with evasive answers and/or a corporate statement that they are not obligated under the regulations to provide public information until three months after the turbine is in operation.

Many of those concerned about the herring say they know the reason that government officials are not pushing the panic button to stop the turbines and evaluate further: the province has invested a huge amount of financial and political currency in this demonstration project. GNS remains enthusiastic about the possibilities of tidal power, even though the new turbine is producing what some call the most expensive energy in the world. 13 A CBC report said, “The electricity being generated is some of the most expensive ever produced in Nova Scotia, costing $530 per megawatt hour versus the current average of $60 per megawatt hour.” 14

herring-4As Porter says, “It does not look likely that turbines are the cause, because of the distance between the new turbine in Minas Passage and where the herrings are beached, but to not assess a factor that could be causing this kill is irresponsible, regardless of what factor that is. DFO has told me this could be related to food supply, predator avoidance, viruses, water conditions, etc. – all of which are not monitored or studied on a regular basis. For the turbines, we know the possible pathways of effects and can assess the likelihood based on the evidence collected.” Yet it appears that the turbines are not being properly evaluated.

Other Contemporary Herring Die-Offs

There have been other recent dramatic herring die-offs in the more eastern Atlantic.

In England, just the past week or so, “thousands of dead fish have washed up on a beach in Cornwall and nobody quite knows why…” apparently “mostly herring with a few mackerel.” 15 It may or may not be relevant, but two companies, OpenHydro (owned by naval defence and energy corporation DCNS based in France) and Emera (a publicly traded energy and services company based in Nova Scotia, specializing in renewable/alternative energy) have partnered to form the Cape Sharp corporation that installed the turbine at Minas Passage. OpenHydro has apparently installed two similar turbines in Ireland. Everything must be considered in this crisis situation for the humble herring, on whom so many others depend. It’s odd that concerned citizens on both sides of the Atlantic are saying they have never seen kills like these before. Further, they are happening in two separate places across the ocean where new tidal energy turbines from the same manufacturer have been deployed. It at least deserves some investigation.

In December 2012 and February 2013, in Iceland, there were two massive die-offs of herring. One expert estimated that 50% of the herring were wiped out. Various reports have attributed this to causes as diverse as local building, overcrowding of the population in one spawning fjord, related oxygen starvation, etc. However, for most informed observers, there really has been no satisfactory conclusion on cause, making it impossible to learn from this instance. Perhaps this could be the result of changes in the ocean arising from global climate alterations? In any event, it would behoove government to immediately consider the parallels of the Iceland die-off in regards to the current Bay of Fundy die-off. 16

Can We Help the Humble Herring?

DFO began conducting tests more than two weeks ago. Their preliminary results found no evidence of a virus or parasites. As the crisis has deepened, DFO decided to send some of the dead herring for external bacteriology, virology and histopathology analysis. There are different timelines for getting results from the various types of tests, some of them quite lengthy.

In general, it often seems to grassroots people that it can take years to get answers from government departments about the simplest things. As the situation stretches towards a month of beachings with no answers, fishermen, Mi’kmaq traditional knowledge experts, environmentalists, and other concerned people are becoming more and more critical and skeptical about whether DFO still has any capacity for responsible management and protection of life in the ocean.

Some people are concerned that DFO is too subject to the politics and hidden agendas passed down to them from Ottawa. This was very evident under former Prime Minister Harper’s regime. Not only were environmental regulations tossed out, but libraries and archives were destroyed and personnel stripped from relevant branches concerned with protection of marine life. Most people working in DFO now are survivors of Harper’s 10 year reign of terror on environmentalists; many who could not accept the regime’s decrees left, or were let go.

The current government’s new Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) does not offer much reassurance. Touted as a stewardship initiative, a careful read of federal government announcements shows something different. A lot of emphasis is put on additional resources being put towards mopping up environmental crises that may occur as a result of oil and gas industrial development in the water, or transportation over the water that has gone wrong. 17 This is not a bad thing, but protection starts with prevention.

Overall, fishermen and outdoors enthusiasts do not remember ever seeing so many dead fish on eastern Bay of Fundy shores. Some say that Government of Nova Scotia has prioritized industrial development over the wellbeing of the water and those whose lives depend on being in or near healthy water. Community members often point to the case of the salmon farms as the cause of the end of our wild salmon: DFO swore the farms were safe, but now we see viral and bacterial contamination of the indigenous species from these farms.

As mentioned above, rural life is hugely important to Nova Scotia. However, the government does not seem to understand that by allowing the “resource” to “evolve” – possibly towards extinction – it will destroy the capacity of rural areas to sustain themselves. This bodes disaster for food sovereignty and many other facets of holistic sustainable economic development.

One deeply alienated citizen said “government response is basically the Monty Python one: those fish are not dead they are just sleeping!” Politicians in power must read these frustrations as a warning sign. Consider the upheavals recently in England and in the United States, when ordinary community folk were convinced that big government was not listening and addressing community concerns?

By contrast, Dr. Bradley Walters, a professor of geography and environment at Mount Alison University, did a critical reading of the draft of this document. Walters’ view is too much attention is paid to the “highly unlikely possibility” the tidal turbines could be causative. It is his hope that the assistance of DFO’s Rob Stevenson, an expert on Atlantic finfish including herring and the Fundy weir fishery, is sought on this matter.

Leighton rejects “notions of government scientific incompetence or conspiracy,” but seems to be concerned that the issue is not being taken seriously enough. He says he would like to urge “someone get out on the water and try and find out how big a problem this is, how widespread is it, what are we dealing with?”

While we wait for government to do the job they are supposed to do, Porter emphasizes, “The biggest thing needed is continuous reporting of sightings. People are getting slack, thinking enough have been reported or possibly the kills they see are already reported. The message must be, ‘Report every single kill you see.Here is what citizen scientist beach-walkers are asked to document with photographs and in writing:

  • The exact location of the beach you walked, how much of the beach you covered, and the date and time of day;
  • The approximate number of fish you saw on the beach, per yard or metre;
  • The approximate number of fish you saw in the shallow water at the shore, per yard or metre;
  • Whether the dead or dying appeared to all be herring and if not what other species were present;
  • Percent of fish still alive when observed;
  • Any other dead birds or mammals found, and if so which ones and how many;
  • Were scavengers present to eat the dead fish?

When you have done your beach walk, and have photos and text to share, MacKay (from the western Fundy) and Porter (from the eastern Fundy) are teaming up and eager to share all their information with involved government agencies and non-governmental bodies:

There is a third way to report as well, if you are comfortable with computers:

One more thing: contact your provincial and federal politicians and ask them: “What are YOU doing about helping the Humble Herring, and thereby all of us?”

We need to get this crisis resolved and hopefully find some way to really help the herring. This humble fish is truly a crucial part of both the marine and terrestrial food chain. In the western Fundy, MacKay comments, “In general, the herring industry over here has undergone big shifts for many reasons, which all deserve more research. All the pressures are here in one form or another. We are not seeing similar mortalities right now, but we have observed huge impacts on prey species such as Calanus, krill, etc., from, I believe, aquaculture.”

On the plus side, people on the ground with the most to lose or gain from successful resolution are alarmed and motivated. This emergency effort could break “silos” and foster better collaboration

The document is intended to bring awareness and encourage everyone to work together for all our sake’s. It was prepared as a social action research report: ie., community information assembled and packaged to encourage social action.

Most often crises that affect ordinary peoples’ way of life or livelihood are reviewed and decided by people with more power and who are at a distance from the disaster. Following the priniciples of Freirean popular education, the opinions and concerns of grassroots people who live close to the situation, or in the midst of it, are given a lot of weight. Popular education social action research honours the input of those on the ground, as well as those who are specialists.

I have the support of the Kent County NB Chapter of the Council of Canadians to post this discussion document on the Chapter’s blogspace. If you want to contact me, the author of this document, email Ann Pohl at coc.kent.county.nb@gmail.com. Due to lack of time, I will have to leave it at that. I hope this helps. Please leave no stone unturned for the Humble Herring. 

16 The herring apocalypse: Fish worth millions in exports die in Icelandic lake after building work ‘starves them of oxygen

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