Hundreds of herring were hanging from the rafters of native long houses when Captain James Cook first sailed along the coast of British Columbia in the spring of 1778. And First Nations people can be seen smoking the small silver fish over fires in an arresting painting by John Webber, the artist on the Cook’s expedition.
Native legends and place names also provide plenty of evidence that herring were far more common historically than they are today.
Now a team of archeologists has weighed in with a report that further elevates the status of the lowly fish.
The international team assessed data on almost half a million fish bones found at 171 archeological sites along the coast of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington.
“We found that one species, herring, was consistently the most abundant and ubiquitous fish in the 171 sites,” says Iain McKechnie, a post-doctoral fellow based at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University (SFU) and lead author of the report published Monday in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Herring was the consistent focus of the fishery for at least the last 2,500 years,” says McKechnie. The study of sites up to 10,00o years old also provides sobering “deep time” evidence of how the herring fishery, which was sustainable over the “millennia,” has been seriously depleted by industrial fishing since the late 1800s.
Herring have vanished from coastal areas around Vancouver and Victoria where the archeological evidence shows they were once plentiful. They have also disappeared from many traditional First Nations sites along the coast.