From: Nicholas Barrett, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published June 10, 2014 09:21 AM

How herring populations are affected by commercial fisheries

Scientists analyzed almost half a million fish bones to shed light on the population history of Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) in the North Pacific Ocean. Their paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reveals a decline of unprecedented scale. It suggests that while the abundance of Pacific herring does fluctuate naturally, their numbers have fallen precipitously since commercial fishing started targeting the species in the 19th century.

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The team, made up of anthropologists and archaeologists hailing from universities across Canada, set out with an ambition to frame depleted 21st century fisheries within a wider historical context.

"We used all available archaeological data compiled from 171 sites spread throughout the coast and collected by researchers over a period of 40 years," co-author Iain McKechnie, a coastal archaeologist from Simon Fraser University and self-described "counter of fishbones," told mongabay.com. "Each site has the same type of systematically collected data (fish bones morphologically identified to species, genera, or family) and this totals 435,777 bones."

McKechnie and his team didn't start out to study Pacific herring, but from amongst the stories and trends hidden in the bones, the plight of this one species caught their attention.

"Within this dataset, one species stood out and stood far above the rest—Pacific herring," McKechnie said. "From that point on, we knew that we could concentrate on how this one species was proportionally represented across these 171 archaeological sites spanning from 10,400 years ago to the early 1800s."

The data revealed that historic Pacific herring populations were far more consistently abundant and extensive than they are today.

The Pacific herring is a small fish with large implications for the areas they inhabit. The herring act as food for a diverse range of other animals, including whales, dolphins, seagulls, bears, wolves and other species of fish. According to McKechnie, this makes them a vital protagonist in the effort to preserve marine ecosystems in the northern Pacific Ocean.

"Pacific herring is a forage fish and forage fish are globally significant ecologically and economically in that they are a central node in marine ecosystem—they transform energy from lower trophic levels (e.g., zooplankton) into the higher levels of animals that prey on herring, (including) seabirds, larger fish, and marine mammals," McKechnie said. "Therefore, without sufficient forage fish population to prey on, a large number of key birds, fish, and marine species can be dramatically affected."

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Herring image via Shutterstock.

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