Surf Scoters joining the huge rafts of ducks following the herring spawn.


The Pacific herring spawn is the most spectacular and significant natural history event on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The spawn impacts every aspect of the associated environment from invertebrates, fishes, and birds to mammals. Unfortunately, herring populations have been decimated largely because of over-fishing and the consequent decline in many species such as wild salmon and cod followed. In earlier times herring stocks numbered into hundreds of tons, and was relentlessly harvested for the reduction fishery. It is difficult to imagine but fishery records show that 200,000 tons were harvested in 1953 and 1954. Of course, the golden goose couldn't be allowed to survive and by 1967 low stocks forced the closure of the reduction fishery.

Despite the low herring stocks commercial fishing was allowed to continue in 1972 as a sac roe fishery. I'm not sure if there were any management plans in place but under the watchful eye of the DFO the Haida Gwai fishery collapsed in 1980 and has never recovered. Apparently, in 1986 there was supposed to be some management plan in place to limit the catch at 20%, but I'm not sure how that works or if it works. Stocks all along the west coast are still precariously low. Maybe the limit needs to be lowered or another moratorium imposed. According this this year's data 70,000 tons of herring was assessed in the Strait of Georgia, but as of March 27, the commercial catch was 9,695 for seine and 10,070 for gillnet or a total of 19,765 tons or 28%. If my figures are correct that's an overcatch of 8% which should never have been allowed.

Obviously the herring situation is more complex that I understand, but the simplistic view is that more herring means more other value-added species such as salmon, lingcod, and halibut. In the long run everyone benefits. Unfortunately, the mentality of short-term gain prevails, and the lessons of the Atlantic cod collapse have long been forgotten. Closer to home the decline in salmon stocks is also related to the decline of herring, but does anyone care?

Mar. 4 - Taking advantage of the rare sunny day I decided to drive along the coast to Deep Bay looking for signs of herring spawn. Unfortunately, there was no telltale turquoise water betraying the presence of spawning herring. I proceeded as far as Buckley Bay where I filled up with gas and grabbed a roasted chicken Subway sandwich then headed back. There were still no signs of spawn until I reached Qualicum Bay where I was greeted by a vista of turquoise water sparkling in the afternoon sun. Although I have never been to the Caribbean, this was how I imagined it would look like.

All along the coast fishermen were waiting for same sign, and it didn't take long for a boat and skiff to appear. This was the moment they were waiting for.

This was also the time for the gulls. The flock that was resting on the sandbar suddenly took flight and headed for areas where the herring got too close to the surface.

Many of the gulls stayed close to the herring skiff knowing there would be a few fish falling from the net.

Mar. 6 - On March 5 I heard that the seine boats were waiting off Cape Lazo (Comox airport)for a possible herring opening. Taking advantage of the rare sunny morning I decided to go to Comox hoping for some photos of the fleet in action. We arrived at noon and the good news was that the fleet was directly offshore with Powell River in the background. The bad news was that it was too far out for decent photos. However, it was a gorgeous day, and I was happy to enjoy the panoramic scene.

Where there is fish there will be birds. Gulls by the thousands were attracted to the fishing activity and opportunistically plucked wounded herring from the water. Meanwhile, every treetop was occupied by Bald Eagles waiting patiently to swoop down on any available fish.

The eagles frequently glided by our vantage point providing many photo opportunities.

On Mar. 10 there was another seine opening in Baynes Sound just east of the cable ferry. I arrived at 11:00 and tried for some photos at Rosewall Creek. I wanted to get shots of sea lions jumping into the net, but it was overcast and the fleet was too far away. I stuck it out for an hour hoping the fleet would come closer, but they didn't. I had to settle for a few record shots.

My next stop was Deep Bay which was even farther from the fleet, but as I watched, the fleet started moving towards me.

An hour later the Qualicum Producer was hauling up its net right in front of me while the eagles and gulls patrolled looking for stray herring.

It's not just the birds that take advantage of the seine catch. Catching fish in a barrel is nothing compared to a seine net full of herring.

The sea lions were so full that hey just slithered over the net instead of jumping.

You can't go anywhere without the paparazzi showing up. When I got to the spit there was no one but me. When I finally looked up from my camera I was surrounded. It's pretty difficult to get away from the guy with the tan hat on the right.

What's the story with the sea lion and the floats? Well, the floats are tied to the end of a gillnet, and the sea lions know that where there is a gillnet there is a free lunch.

The sea lion simply swims down beside the net and pluck off a herring. I'm not sure if they can consume their food underwater, but they sure like coming out of the water before they swallow their prey.

A California sea lion eats 5 - 8% of its weight a day. A 1,000 lb adult male can eat up to 80 lbs a day.

The gulls are fearless when it comes to food. They have no respect for the powerful jaws of the sea lion as they scavenge for a morsel of fish.

Some for me and some for you. This sea lion didn't seem to mid sharing its snack with the Glaucous-winged gull.

The steep sagittal crest indicates that this is a California sea lion, and the dark brown indicates that it is an adult male. Immature males and females are light brown.

It's fascinating watching the gulls diving down to snatch a fish. It actually eats the fish while it is flying for fear of losing it to another gull.

With all the rucous caused by the sea lions it's easy to miss the seals, but they are there quietly getting their share.

Here's one that got away. Unfortunately, it was high and dry and not even fresh enough for a gull.

What happens to the fish that the sea lions and other predators don't steal from the nets? They are delivered to French Creek and pumped out of the holds.

From the holds they hit the conveyor to waiting containers of ice. They are then trucked to the processing plant in Ucluelet where the roe is removed from the females. The roe is shipped to Asian markets - mainly Japan. Meanwhile the males and rest of the female carcasses are probably reduced to fish meal for the fish farms.

There was an excellent spawn at Madrona so that gave me the opportunity to check out one of the warnings I have frequently heard - "don't disturb washed up or exposed spawn because it is still viable and will wash out at the next high tide."

The spawn was everywhere and every piece of seaweed was covered.

I went to Madrona every day for 14 days after the spawn to check the eggs at low tide.

I took about 50 photos each day and examined the enlargements for any sign of fetal development.

As each day passed more and more eggs washed up onto the beach. I had a feeling that nothing would survive and after 15 days many of the eggs were rotting an providing fodder for flies and other insects. After 15 days of observation I had to conclude that none of the exposed eggs could survive. A week later my wife met another lady who was married to a herring scientist. She asked her husband about the eggs and he confirmed that only the subtidal eggs are viable.

Although he beached eggs aren't viable they do provide nutritious food for a variety of birds especially gulls and Brant. I watched for awhile to see if the Black Oystercatcher was interested in the roe but didn't see any action before I left.

Brant definitely enjoy the roe. They enjoy picking it off the beach or eating it with the sea lettuce and eelgrass.

Water droplets or roe? I'm guessing roe because water droplets aren't usually that big, or are they?

One of my favorite parts of the herring spawn is the silver wave of migration which is analogous to the green wave for songbirds. Huge flocks of ducks, mainly Surf Scoters and Greater Scaup, follow the herring spawn north. Massive flocks often materialize around Oceaside because that's the largest remaining spawn area in BC.

In an earlier count at Parksville Bay, Guy Monty estimated over 27,000 Surf Scoters, over 3,000 Greater Scaup, and lesser numbers for several other species.

It is an awesome sight to see 1,000s of ducks taking flight at the same time.



Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)



















Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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