"By compiling the largest dataset of archaeological fish bones in the Pacific Northwest, we demonstrate the value of using archaeological data to establish an ecological baseline for modern fisheries," Iain McKechnie says. Above, herring bones. (Credit: U. Oregon)

archaeology ,

Ancient bones offer clues to sustainable fisheries

Archaeological data from 171 sites in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington indicate that management efforts along the Pacific Coast need to take a longer view into the past to better protect fisheries for the future.

Herring has been an important food source for indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest for the past 2,500 years, but populations have been depleted by industrial fishing and increased demand for their eggs.

Harring spawn on kelp, Calvert Island, British Columbia (Credit: © Caroline Fox/Raincoast.org)
Herring spawn on kelp, Calvert Island, British Columbia (Credit: © Caroline Fox/Raincoast.org)

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The data in the study primarily covers the last 2,500 years at the sites but span the past 10,700 years. Pacific herring (Clupea pallisii) has been a foundation for the region’s coastal ecosystem and has been consistently abundant in all regions, but especially in the northern Salish Sea and southwestern Vancouver Island areas.

“This study extends our perspective on coastal fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. Among the dozens of species harvested by countless generations of Native Americans and First Nations in Canada, one stands out archaeologically: herring,” says Iain McKechnie, a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Fellow at the University of Oregon.

“Herring was a consistent focus of the fishery for at least the last 2,500 years. This helps contextualize the circumstance of present-day fisheries and allows us to reconsider how herring was a food fish, not just as roe or bait as it is with much of the commercial fishery today.”

Northwest herring populations have been affected by 120 years of industrial fishing and, especially, since the 1970s by the increased demand for their eggs, or roe, especially in Japan, says Madonna Moss, professor of anthropology. In contrast, Native Northwest indigenous populations harvest eggs after spawning, collecting them from branches placed in the intertidal zone, and eat the fish they catch.

Half a million fish bones

For the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors combed through reams of archaeological reports that analyzed almost half a million fish bones at the sites. That data from the past was combined with new research in progress along the British Columbia coast. Indigenous peoples harvested at least 100 different fish species in the region.

“By compiling the largest dataset of archaeological fish bones in the Pacific Northwest, we demonstrate the value of using archaeological data to establish an ecological baseline for modern fisheries,” McKechnie says.

“This kind of ecological baseline extends into the past well beyond the era of industrial fisheries and is necessary for designing sustainable management today,” says co-author Ken Lertzman, a professor at Simon Fraser University.

Since the range of Pacific herring crosses national borders, it’s critical for US and Canadian researchers to tackle these issues together, working with the region’s First Nations and Native American communities and fisheries scientists and policymakers, Moss says.

Researchers from Rutgers, Lakehead University, University of Ontario, and University of Alberta contributed to the research, which was funded by the National Geographic Research; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Tula Foundation; the Hakai Network for Coastal People, Ecosystems and Management; the North Pacific Research Board; and a Borden Fellowship at the University of British Columbia.

Source: University of Oregon

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