l-r: Iain McKechnie and Dana Lepofsky sort through dried mud looking for herring bone fossils.l-r: Iain McKechnie and Dana Lepofsky sort through dried mud looking for ancient herring bones.

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Ancient herring catch nets fisheries’ weakness

February 17, 2014
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Archaeological data indicate modern herring management needs to take a longer look into the past to manage fisheries for the future says a new study involving Simon Fraser University researchers.

That is one of the study’s key findings just published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). SFU 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 initiated at the SFU-based Herring School, a group of researchers that investigates the cultural and ecological importance of herring.

The study’s authors combed through reams of archaeological reports that analyze almost half-a-million fish bones at 171 archaeological sites in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State.

Most of the bones are primarily from Pacific Herring and date as far back as 10,000 years, during a time when Indigenous fisheries reigned.

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

“By compiling the largest dataset 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 says: “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.”

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

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