Herring and Archaeology

An important component of our ongoing archaeological research is blending our personal commitment to the preservation of heritage with conservation of the natural world.  In particular, we are 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 come together in our study of the use of herring in Tla’amin territory.

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.  In many parts of the coast, community members have told us that the herring runs are too small to make it worthwhile to fish or collect spawn.  On the Sunshine Coast, many attribute this dramatic decline to over-fishing by seine boats in the 1980’s, when there were huge numbers of boats in Tla’amin waters. 

The past ecological and cultural importance of herring on the west coast is echoed in the 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.  Throughout the coast, 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 clearly reflected in place names such as “Tee Sho Shum” -- “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.  This is in sharp contrast to the practice of some groups to fish herring in the spring in bays after spawning.  Government fisheries managers have suggested that there was no long-term fishery in places like the Sunshine Coast and that the herring have just “moved on”.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. 

One of the goals of our archaeological research is to study the past abundance and diversity of herring on the 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, a powerful way to begin to document the spatial and temporal variability of herring is by combining indigenous knowledge and archaeological data with modern ecological data.