The Norwegian spring spawning herring. An important lesson in over fishing!

Over fishing is a problem throughout the world. Even in Europe the nations have problems protecting and managing stocks. For several species it is necessary to “have a plan”, but such plans of protecting and rebuilding stocks are unpopular among the fishermen and people connected to the fish industry. Norway learned a lesson the hard way in the 1970’s.

Fishing for herring has been the most important fishery for most fishermen in Norway. In the 1950’s the spring spawning herring were caught east of Iceland in the summer and off the coast of Norway in the winter and spring.

Fishing herring using nets. Photo: Harald Hausken

Scientists and fishermen cooperated in the hunt for the herring. Using sonar and knowing the distribution area the scientists and fishermen could easily find the herring. This progress in the 1950’s was combined with better equipment and improved fishing gear. The power block made the fishery more efficient, and the vessels were bigger and safer. The reduce in the stock in the early 1960’s were compensated with more intensive fishing using modern technology and better equipment.

Seiner with a catch of herring in the late 1960's. Photo: Odd Haugetun

In 1966 it was caught 2 000 000 tons of Norwegian spring spawning herring. Vessels from Iceland and Russia had then been considerable parts of the fleet fishing for herring. All ages of herring were caught. In the late 1960’s most of the herring did not get old enough to spawn. No one wanted to see “the writing on the wall”. In 1969 the stock collapsed and in 1970 the Norwegian government banned the fishing for young herring. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the Norwegian spring spawning herring changed migration pattern several times. This may be a mechanism triggered off by the decrease in the stock. The Russian scientists could not find herring in The Norwegian Sea in 1971, and the Russian drifters returned with no catch. A last change in migration pattern had led the rest of the spawning stock into the fjord Vestfjorden in northern Norway. This may have saved the spring spawning herring from total extermination. The collaps in the stock was still a fact, and the effect of the long lasting over fishing was clear to both fishermen and scientists. A large fishing fleet from Norway and other countries was depended on herring, and thousands of fishermen and workers in the fish industry had great parts of their yearly income from the herring fisheries. In 1972 the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) agreed not to fish herring during the winter (during the spawning). It was then too late. Even a total ban did not seem to help. Some fishermen did not agree in the ban. It was hard to believe the fact. Norway had fished for herring for hundreds of years. The herring had always been there. Were the scientists right? Later on (in the 1990’s) scientists estimated the stock in 1972 to bee only 2000 tons. That means that one single modern seiner could have carried the whole 1972-stock of Norwegian spring spawning herring. It then took 25 years to rebuild the stock. In 2002 the stock was as big and healthy as in the 1950’s.

Fishing herring in Vestfjorden in 2003. Photo: R. Gjerde

Many fishermen lost their job in the 1970’s, and the government had to pay ship owners to scrap their vessels. The growth of the oil industry in the 1970’s gave work to a lot of the fishermen. There were few alternatives within fishing. Norway had to pay for the collapse of the herring stock – and it was an expensive and hard way of learning for the communities along the coast.

Knowing this history from Norway it is sad to observe other countries (and unions) not taking effort in protecting and rebuilding stocks. Doing nothing, or not taking the difficult decisions, is to wait for a collapse. It will come, and then it is too late for the stocks, the fishermen, the ship owners, and others involved in the fisheries.

Denne artikkelen har 2 comments så langt!

  1. Thomas L says —

    Well, it’s good that the herring stocks are back.
    Even though I have only caught a few dozens of herring in my nets this year.

  2. admin says —

    Congratulations. No herring for me this year. I heard that there are a lot of herring in the areas west of Bergen now. Guess it is autumn spawning herring. The spawning grounds south of Stad has not been used by the Norwegian spring spawning herring the last 3 years. Some herring is still caught there every winter, but that is supposed to be herring of smaller local stocks of spring spawners.