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Herring: Keystone Species, Gift, Commodity | Engaging Resources
New Anthropological Perspectives on Natural Resource Environments

Herring: Keystone Species, Gift, Commodity

Jaime Yard, York University

Caught exclusively for the Japanese market, BC’s herring roe is the most valuable in the world due to particular marine conditions that create the texture most prized by Japanese consumers.  In Japan, herring roe is a seasonal delicacy, kazunoko that has traditionally been the emblematic gift of the New Year’s holidays.  In fishing industry papers from across Canada and the U.S., the BC herring roe fishery is touted as a success story, a model case for neoliberal marine policy reforms that emphasize entrepreneurial opportunism, sustainable fisheries management, and direct relationships between local resources and global markets. This paper, however, tells a different story: of limited employment, overcapitalization, inter-regional competition that is steadily decreasing the demand for BC roe, and exploitative and precarious conditions of labour. I draw upon life/labour history interviews with fishers I conducted during a year of field research in a coastal fishing community in BC, fisheries industry reports from Canada and the US, and ethnographic work on Japanese gift-practices to examine the tenuous-but-necessary role of culture in creating and maintaining niche-market commodity chains in the BC herring roe fishery.  I place this contemporary fishery in a longer historical trajectory in a BC community with strong local ties to herring and herring fisheries. In this paper I seek to demystify the neoliberal vision of trade disarticulated from states and localities by highlighting how the herring roe commodity chain is dependent upon deeply embedded local traditions in both BC and Japan.