March is traditionally herring time in the Salish Sea. Although the event is severely diminished from historic levels, it is a still a sight to behold. All you can do is quiety weep and imagine what the glory days must have been like when herring masses up to 70 kilometers long were common and whale spouts were visible in every direction along with clouds of gulls, swarms of ducks, seabirds, and other wildlife. Unfortunately, the glory days are over as the myopic collusion of industry and government is slowly but surely driving the species into oblivion. The lessons of the past have been lost, and just as the Atlantic cod was managed into near-extinction, the catastrophe is being repeated with the Pacific herring. Herring has already been depleted in over 80% of its historic locations, and the remaining 20% is on the chopping block.

As a foundatiion species the herring supports every other species above it in the food chain from cod, salmon, seals, sea lions, ducks, and sea birds to the mighty Orca. Declines in herring populations have been followed by serious wildlife losses that ultimately resulted in many human job losses in industries like commercial salmon, sport fishing, and tourism. In fact, the impact on salmon has become so severe that the government recently (June 29/21) imposed long-term closures and enacted an aggressive licence buy-back program. Unfortunately, none of the strategies recognized the need for curtailment of the herring fishery.

The irony of the herring fishery is that it should have never been allowed inthe first place. It was continued after the reduction fishery to take advantage of the Japanese demand for roe. But the current method of roe harvesting is like killing the cow to get a quart of milk or killing the chicken to get an egg. A herring can produce eggs for many years if it is allowed to grow to maturity, but the current net and massacre method only allows the herring to reproduce once. Alternatively, eggs can be successfully and sustainably harvested by the spawn-on-kelp method without killing a single herring. As well, because half the herring are males and roe is only 10% of the mature female that means 90% of the herring is processed for fish meal and other non-human uses which contradicts the original intent of the fisheries act. However, as they say, "Laws are meant to be broken," and the government simply granted itself an exemption.

It would be easy to just sit back and watch the herring disappear, but we all have an obligation to save our environment for future generations. We all need to speak up and support what we know is right, and in this case it's PLEASE STOP THE HERRING MASSACRE. If you are looking for a conservation group contact CONSERVANCY HORNBY ISLAND, PACIFIC WILD, or RAINCOAST CONSERVATION FOUNDATION.

During the herring spawn it is not uncommon to see herring right at the edge of the water during their procreation frenzy. I spotted this one and several more on Denman Island a few years ago while the locals were walking along the shoreline scooping them with nets.

Apparently, herring in the Salish Sea can grow up to an average of about 25.4 centimeters. During the local herring fishery the average size was about 19 cm March 10 when the gillnet fishery opened this year which meant that most did not reach full size before they were harvested. It is such a waste of reproduction potential that it should be criminal to catch them before they reach their full size and have reproduced several times.

The wildlife including eagles know when it's herring time, and they are just as excited as any other predator or photographer.

The signs of reproduction are unmistakeable, but the chicken or egg question still baffles me. I favor the male depositing its sperm first. The sperm and pheremones attract the female and stimulate ovulation. That way there is a 100% chance of fertilization. If the females laid their eggs first and the males got distracted, which wouldn't be unusual, the eggs might not get fertilized.

It doesn't take long for the gulls, seals, sea lions, and eagles to zone in on the reproduction site.

I was at Moss park in Deep Bay when I was attracted by the herring spawn and just in time to watch an eagle circle and swoop down for a herring. I was actually too close to capture the image of the eagle swooping and grabbing herring, but it was breath-taking to see the majestic bird of prey in action at point blank range.

Shooting with a 500 mm prime and 1.4x converter is my standard set up, but in this case I wish I had a 200 - 500 zoom. If Santa is paying attention, I might get my wish. However, my set up was good for the exit shot as the eagle was leaving.

The herring were no match for the razor sharp talons and the non-slip texture of the eagle's feet.

After the eagle left the gulls gathered for their herring feast. It was like fishing in a barrel as the gulls easily ducked under and grabbed the herring.

The gulls have powerful bills to grip and hold the herring. It is interesting to see them flip the herring into feeding position and swallow it in full flight.

On March 12 the action was at Blunden Point in Lantzville. It was like a circus to see all the excited children and parents witnessing the spawn for the first time.

Most impressive were the sea lions that fearlessly surged up with herring in their jaws within a few feet from the onlookers.

Meanwhile, the gulls were more interested in the caviar that was abundant floating on the milky green water.

Haute cuisine was also available in the form of caviar-on-kelp.

The most impressive bird activity was the Surf Scoter parade as the flock swam in formation while diving and feasting on the herring roe. In the past it was not unusual to see flocks of thousands, but there seemed to be much less this year. It's difficult to say if the populations have declined, but several experienced birders have concurred that there seemed to be fewer this year. A few Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks were also in the flock it was 99% Surf Scoter.

Eventually a flock of Greater Scaup flew in to join the festivities. They are usually the second most abundant ducks following the silver migration trail.

On March 23 we ventured to Qualicum to see what bird activity we could find. Spawn activity was reported in that area so we expected to see Brant and dabbling ducks in the shallow waters at the north end of town. We weren't disappointed. Ducks seemed to be flying everywhere like this pair of American Wigeons.

A few Northern Pintails were also present and the males were conspicuous with their distinctive features and long, flowing tails.

Yes, it was party time and there was a whole lot of dabbling going on in the shallow waters.

As expected, the Brant were also in attendance. There approximately 200 busily foraging for roe along the shoreline oblivious of the many onlookers

When someone approached too closely the Brant simply moved a short distance offshore and resumed their foraging while swimming.

Birds of a feather do seem to flock together and the Harlequins are good examples. I usually find them on their own little patch of shoreline while most of the ducks are a fair distance offshore. They like to preen and rest in their own little cliques and forage for herring roe in the shallows near the shoreline

When it's time to move on they bounce over the waves like olympic class surfers.

If they are startled they take flight and join the flocks farther offshore, but they frequently return in a few minutes.

A loony congregation - flocks of Pacific Loons are common off Hornby Island where herring is a common source of food.

Spots on the back and stripes on the neck are signs of plumage change, but plumage change isn't complete until late May when the loons prepare to migrate north to tundra and taiga nesting sites.

March is also mating season for many birds including the Belted Kingfisher. When I spotted the resident female at French Creek, my first thought was, "Has her partner arrived yet?"

I wasn't sure what was happening when she suddenly got excited and started calling.

You can't blame her for being excited. Her new mate had just arrived. I'm not sure whether there was any pre-arrangement or selection process, but she seemed to be quite happy after being alone for the past six months. As for mate selection, I read one article that said a new mate was chosen each year and another that said a mate was retained for more than one year.

Random shot - There wasn't much bird activity at Morningstar when I visited, but a female Hairy Woodpecker was very obliging while she was foraging for insects on the ground.

A Coldwater regular - The Coldwater Road Kestrels are probably one of the most photographed species in Parksville. 75% of the times when I drive by there is someone parked by the perching tree.

March is also migration time for the Northern Flickers. My suet feeder was extremely popular for a few days while a group of five or six fueled up for the next leg of their journey.

The top of the suet pole was a popular resting spot for flickers waiting their turn on the suet.
















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