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Herring Lady Saves Orcas Through Investigative Book

Herring roe spawners

Washington state resident Tove Chatham, known as Herring Lady, is soon to publish an overview of an issue plaguing waters between The Evergreen State and British Columbia: diminished populations of herring, which has caused a damaging ripple effect throughout the region. Chatham’s book, The Herring Lady’s Plan to Save the Orcas – A Plan to Save the Chinooks and Orcas by Increasing Herring Stocks says what it is on the tin: a guidebook to correct a pervasive problem.

Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Tove Chatham

Herring are prey fish, often consumed by orcas, humpback whales, and sea lions; and according to The PEW Charitable Trusts, herring make up 80 percent of the chinook salmon’s diet: the salmon itself a prey fish for orcas and other native mammals.

Spanning over 66 pages of researched materials and personal anecdotes, Chatham’s book covers the gamut of topics related to herring and their predators, sharing ways to safely and efficiently replace lost herring populations. Her research is presented in an easy to read format, often complemented by imagery that helps readers understand proportions: for example, a single tablespoon of herring roe could potentially hatch into 18,000 fish.

Chatham worked for a family fish hatchery for 15 years, selling bait fish such as herring throughout the Washington State, and she lends this expertise to readers while sharing her personal connection to this ongoing issue. Her book will be available on Kindle, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Transfer the Brailer

We spoke with Chatham about her upcoming work and the issues facing Washington and British Columbia’s herring schools.

JT (John Tapley): Thank you for agreeing to meet with me this afternoon, Tove. What inspired you to create this book?

TC (Tove Chatham): I knew last year that herring spots were low; and there as that summer where the whale was carrying her dead baby on her tummy. I knew I had to finish it soon and try and get it to the State of Washington’s Orca Task Force. During that time period I also talked to as many fisheries and biologists in the area to get a grasp on what was going on. They’re nice people and are making a huge impact on how much food the orcas are going to have: if orcas don’t have a huge chinook population, which is balanced by chinook eating herring, they’re going to die.

The answers they gave me were appalling: they haven’t had any significant updates on the herring population since 2009, and they did a report in 2012, but they had severe cutbacks and haven’t been able to any hands-on work with herring. This is ten-year old data.

JT: From your research, what is the root cause of dwindling herring populations?

TC: There’s too few herrings: they need a certain amount in their school – huge numbers, like billions – in order to replicate themselves in the waters. There may be only 80,000 tons of herring left but it needs to be millions and billions. When they get out into the open sea, even as eggs, everything eats them: even wolves and bears come down to the beach to eat them. Down under the sea, starfish, crabs, and larger fish eat herring and their eggs. They’re a delicious protein food; they’re a prey fish.

JT: What has exacerbated the problem over the years? Overfishing?

TC: Absolutely. It wasn’t a big change. In the ‘80s, Washington State Fish and Wildlife allowed roe herring fishermen in Bellingham Bay, the north end, and around the [Puget] Sound, to overfish the herring stocks. At the same time, about 1984, there was a decision to allow the Indian tribes to take half of all the herring catch. Between overfishing with normal herring catch and roe fishing (which takes out the whole population; roe fishing shouldn’t happen) it’s upside down and get back on its own. They’ve closed the Sound for herring fishing since the ‘80s but the stocks haven’t been able to rebound since there’s too many other fish eating them. That’s why I think it’s so important to do something like my book states.

Net full of eggs

Maybe we accidentally figured it out but it was in the natural course of fishing for sport bait that we always held the fish in the winter so they could have eggs – they weren’t good for bait when they were big and fat and full of eggs. We always let them deposit their eggs into pens and they don’t eat in the winter time. We started new fishing runs everywhere we did that and for 34 years it was successful; that’s how we figured out they would come back. We would have to go out and find some fish to hold them; there’s some in the Strait of Georgia or Point Roberts. I need to set up a meeting with tribal leaders to put a plan together to have them catch fish with roe in them. I checked with the San Juan Islands and there was a whole run that disappeared.

JT: Where do you want the reach of your book to go?

TC: I’ll be sending it to a few large places like the Pacific Fisheries Council, the State of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources… I’ve already sent one to the governor. I’ll send it to people who are key to the subject. I’ll get together with scientists and tribes in the San Juan Islands, and we’ll try to get it done with their approval – it should naturally happen, and I personally believe the best way is to go through the tribes.

JT: For you, personally, what is your motivation? How does your background with fisheries connect to your devotion to this project?

TC: My father was a sportsman and loved to fish – he was from Arizona. From the time I was a baby, [my family] brought me up for that and we fished all the time, when there were big, huge salmon to catch – my girlfriend caught a 70-pounder. That was in the ‘50s and ‘60s and those big fish haven’t been back. There are some good efforts [to replace salmon populations] up in the islands but if there’s nothing for the salmon to eat when they get out, that’s not a good thing: and it doesn’t appear there is.

Besides the fishing conservation, I’m concerned about plastics in the oceans. On a personal level, I’m trying to recycle everything I can and not use non-reusable products… paper products manufactured out of bamboo and sugar cane. I decided to go whole hog on conservation. Someone has to start somewhere.

JT: Yearly, 10 percent of the sales from your book will go to a non-profit organization. Your first year’s organization will be kwiat on Lopez Island. Why was kiwaht chosen?

TC: [Russel Barsh] does hands-on scientific research up on Lopez Island in the San Juans. He catches black mouths like young salmon, opens their bellies, and checks to see what kind of food is in there. He has a whole bunch of different things.

JT: Thank you for sharing your time with me this afternoon, Tove, and for your work in sharing these details with the public.

TC: Thank you.