Herring Spawn

March 14 - The annual herring spawn is one of the most important and spectacular natural events seen on the Mid-Island. Herring is a keystone species which means it is critical for the survival of many other creatures like numerous species of fish, mammals, and seabirds. Without the herring the abundance of these other species would be seriously compromised and some may even be extirpated. In fact, the overfishing and collapse of the herring stocks in the mid-sixties is probably related to the decline of species like the Pacific Cod, Chinook Salmon, halibut, and coho salmon. So far I haven't come across any information on the effects on seabird populations, but I suspect it was significant.

The current management plan restricts the herring fishery to 20% of the assessed biomass. This is certainly an improvement over the pre-collapse years, but there are many who would like to see a moratorium to allow stocks to rebuild to historic high levels. For some the short term pain might be significant, but in the long run if species such as the salmon, halibut, and cod rebuild to historic high levels, the economic gains will be worth the wait.

One of the side benefits of the herring spawn is the increasing number of tourists who regularly flock to the region to witness the annual spectacle. The herring spawn attracts hundreds of thousands of seabirds and gulls to feast on a banquet of herring caviar for several weeks after the spawn. Thousands of gulls blanket the shorelines like endless snowdrifts while massive rafts of seabirds drift offshore lazily feeding on the roe. As well, during the spawn gigantic sealions frolic in a fantastic feeding frenzy while seals passively bounce on the waves before slipping underwater for another herring treat. Wildlife watching is one of the fastest growing outdoor recreations in the world, and the herring spawn is a world-class spectacle that can be a major attraction and important economic asset.

For me the herring spawn is irresistable. I love seeing the milky turquoise blue water. Even though I can't see the herring sex, I know it's happening, and it'll be good for the many species that depend on it. The thousands of ducks, gulls, seals, and sealions also know it's happening and that's my cue to take out the camera for a few weeks of photographic fun. Today my focus was on the sealions. Although I didn't get the feeding shots I wanted, I was so engrossed that I was oblivious to the ice-cold breeze and frozen ears until I packed it up after three hours of steady shooting. The weatherman is hinting at some better weather at the end of the week so I may get another chance. If I don't, there's always the ducks and maybe a rare gull or two. The following pictures and commentary document my herring spawn activity in the past week.

March 7 - Searching for Spawn

Normally, the herring spawn happens around the first week of March. A small spawn had been reported two days ago at Doehle Road in Parksville and another spot spawn north of Baynes Sound. According to the forecast this was the only sunny day of the week. According to the fishery assessments, a large biomass was located in Lambert Channel. My plan was to check all the usual spots from Parksville Bay to Deep Bay and as a last resort, Denman Island.

As fate would have it, there was absolutely no sign of spawn up to Deep Bay. It was on to Denman. The ferry terminal often yields a good bird or two. On my last trip there were several Barrow's Goldeneyes just west of the parking lot. Today there was a single male Greater Scaup. With perfect morning sunshine at my back, it was an irresistible target.

Unfortunately, Denman was also spawnless - at least while I was there. I went as far as Gravelly Bay, and all I could find for my camera was a Common Loon. I waited around hoping the Pigeon Guillemot, Long-tailed Duck, or Barrow's Goldeneye would come closer to shore but they didn't.

On my way back I spotted a bunch of Bald Eagles on a tree who were also looking for herring. I stopped and scanned the gull-lined beach but there was no sign of fish. I also stopped at Filongly where I was fortunate to encounter Mike Morrell who pointed me to the T-Bar where a flock of Brant were feeding. I had no trouble finding the Brant, but by that time it was overcast and my photos were rendered useless. (Brant and dull weather don't mix.) When I finally got home I was a bit annoyed that I missed the the herring spawn that Mike had found at the mouth of Beadnell Creek.

On the way home I decided to check out Doehle Road in Parksville. I was pleased to see a few small flocks of ducks working on the herring roe from the earlier spawn.

Most of the ducks were Greater Scaup with a few Common Goldeneye, American Wigeons, and other ducks. This would be a precursor of things to come.

As expected, gulls were everywhere. Most were resting on the rocks but there was a substantial number plucking herring roe from the water.

Here's a California Gull drifting in to join the feeding flock.

There weren't very many Bonaparte's Gulls yet, but their numbers will be increasing daily. I had to look hard to find one for you.

March 12 - If At First You Don't Succeed ...

It had rained all week and the forecast was rain for most of next week. The only sign of sun was this morning. The only report of spawn lately was Hornby. It was pouring rain when I left my house. It was pouring in Parksville. It was pouring in Qualicum. By this time I was wondering if I was on a fool's mission. I contemplated turning back, but by Bowser the sky had lightened. I mentally flipped the coin and lost. I kept going. From the Denman Ferry I could see a patch of blue towards Hornby. There was no turning back.

When I pulled into Gravelly Bay to wait for the Hornby ferry, the patch of blue had disappeared, but it wasn't raining. I spotted a juvenile barrow's Goldeneye beside the parking lot. It was a good omen.

If nothing else, I would have a good picture of a Barrow's to show for my trip. If it rained, my plan B was to visit Doug Carrick to discuss an idea we talked about at the recent Bald eagle Festival in Campbell River.

As I headed across Hornby a sweet sight greeted my eyes - the south sea blue I was looking for. It stretched from Shingle Point to Grassy Point. How did I know? I'll tell you later. Right now we're heading down to Shingle Point.

Despite the dull weather the turqoise water sparkled like a massive jewel against the backdrop of dark landforms and gray clouds.

The sea of milt was expansive and stretched as far west as I could see. Surprisingly, there were no fish boats around - only birds, sealions, and seals. There was a large flock of Brandt's Cormorants on the old concrete pier but they all flew as I walked towards them.

Sealions were everywhere, surging powerfully but gracefully through the water.

Most of the sealions were huge and light-coloured. They were the Stellers.

I'm sure they were all feeding but I didn't see any sign of fish. They probably swallowed them underwater.

The gulls were everywhere - on the beach, in the air, on the water ...

Eagles were also prominent. This would be the time for the juveniles to bulk up before they search for their own territories while the resident adults prepared for their nesting season.

Most of the eagles were further up the beach. They were all flying out to the edge of the spawn and returning with their catches.

The closest bird to me was a female Common Merganser that was resting on the beach about 50 meters away. When she finally entered the water she did a few stretches and wing exercises to loosen up.

A Great Blue Heron stood stoically on a rock until a beach walker flushed it towards me.

Surprisingly, ducks were few and far between, but there were plenty of gulls and eagles to keep me distracted.

I wish I were about 1000 meters closer for this shot.

Most of the sealions were of the steller variety. The smaller Californias were noticeably smaller and darker.

I have never had close looks of the sealions in the past and never tried to distinguish between the two species. It wasn't difficult to see the difference.

While the sealions were steadily surging under for fish, the seals just bobbed about like corks before slipping under for a snack.

After an hour at Shingle Point I decided to check Grassy Point. That's where the spawn ended. The angle of light was poor for spawn shots, but something else caught my attention. There must have been over a 100 Harlequins strung along the water's edge. Multiply this picture by 12 and you'll have what I saw. That's the most I've seen in such a small area.

March 14 - Finally, a Major Local Spawn

I first thing I did this morning was check the fishery bulletin for news on the spawn. I was in luck. There was a substantial spawn yesterday from French Creek to Parksville Bay and from Lantzville to Neck Point. I had chores to do but got to them right away. By 1:00 pm I was a free man and headed to French Creek. The breakwater was lined with fishermen casting their lines out and frequently reeling in herring. Most of them were small - only 4 of 5 inches long - the fish not the fishermen. Out in the bay there were only a few skiffs thumping away. The presence of fishermen and boats meant there wouldn't be much wildlife activity. It was also raining so I moved on.

My first stop was Doehle Road. It was near the eastern end of the spawn but also the scene of a previous spawn. It was also a place where the prevailing winds would push the roe towards shore. A large mixed flock of ducks dominated by Greater Scaup and Surf Scoters proved my assumption to be correct.

There were many other species in the large flock. I was happy to see a few Long-taileds since they are one of my favorite species. Other ducks included White-winged and Black Scoters, Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, and American Wigeons. From the top of Doehle I could see more spawn towards the Englishman estuary.

My second and last stop was San Pareil on the eastern side of the Englishman River. It was my last stop because I was riveted to the activity for the next three hours. There wasn't much eagle activity so I was glad I paid attention to the first one I saw. It was too far for good pics but I needed one for the record.

There was no shortage of gulls. They flew right in front of me stalling in the wind then diving under for a possible catch. I estimated the success rate to be about 5%. 1 in 20 seemed to be successful in catching a herring. The herring were small and the gulls had no problem swallowing them in mid-air.

The ducks and Brant were awesome. At times squadron after squadron would fly by challenging me to get some good flight shots.

The largest flocks were always the Surf Scoters but there would also be a few White-wingeds. I didn't see any Black Scoters but out of a few thousand there must have been a few.

The Brant usually fly by in their own flocks, but a few liked to chum around with the scoters. I know they're all looking for the same thing.

I seldom see the Long-taileds flying in sizeable flocks, but there was no shortage today.

I think the Long-taileds were the second most common bird to fly by but they were still out-numbered by the Surf Scoters by 10 to 1.

The Common Goldeneye weren't very common. In three hours I only saw about 30 fly by. I might have seen more but my attention was focussed on the sea lions.

The sea lions were everywhere. A few were in their sleeping clusters but most were chasing herring.

My goal was to catch a sea lion with herring in its mouth, but I came up empty-handed just like this one came up empty-mouthed.

After three hours in the bone-chilling breeze, this was the best I could get, but maybe, if the spawn continues, I'll get another chance.




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