Ribbons of milky turquoise-green water twist and swirl along the northern coast of the Strait of Georgia each year when Pacific herring return to spawn.
A natural wonder that peaks in March, the herring spawn is a herald of spring, eagerly awaited and celebrated by humans and wildlife alike.
The din echoing in the waters of Hornby and Denman Islands, the epicenter of the return, is particularly loud as raucous gulls, seabirds and sea lions screech and bark while feasting on the latest bountiful return of herring along off the coast of British Columbia.
The small silvery forage fish has an outsized impact as a keystone species in the marine food web and ecosystem, providing meals for a wide range of seabirds, fish and aquatic mammals such as dolphins and dolphins. humpback whales,” said Grant Scott, president of the Hornby Conservancy. Island (CHI).
As such, CHI organizes an annual Herring Festival to highlight the importance of fish which includes an art exhibition, a ‘herring school’ with expert speakers and boat trips which feature the associated wildlife spectacle fresh.
Scott organizes many of the trips himself on his family’s old restored fishing boat – the Sun Corona, a classic salmon angler built in 1968.
Herring Fest is primarily designed as a celebration of herring, Scott said, but it also highlights the concerns of many islanders and the public about the continued exploitation of a commercial fishery in the strait while others Once-abundant fisheries on the central coast, west of Vancouver Island, Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii have been closed for years due to overfishing and stocks are still failing to rebound.
As the Sun Corona heads south from Ford Harbor on Hornby, it sails through the waters with flocks of birds, eagles snatching herring from the surface of the water and packs of roving steller and d California sea lions.
There is also the coming and going of commercial and recreational fishing boats as well as kayaks and other tour boats.
Herring are potentially worth more in the water than in a net, Scott said, adding that sport fishing and wildlife tourism focus on sea creatures such as chinook salmon and killer whales that depend on healthy stocks and are much more lucrative than the commercial fishing sector which has suffered a steep decline in values per tonne of fish since the 1990s.
Additionally, the roe fishery, which mainly exports to Japan, catches complete females with their egg sacs, thus shortening the reproductive cycle of a fish that has the potential to spawn up to eight times. said Scott.
“It is also a terrible waste with only 10% of the catch being sold while the remaining 90% is ground up to make food for animals or fish farms,” he said.
Research suggests that cumulative effects such as warmer, acidic and less oxygenated ocean water, changes in the availability of food sources and wilder weather in tidal zones boosted by climate change could have a negative impact on herring, not to mention the loss of important eelgrass beds and other key habitat due to human development along the coasts.
Conservation groups scored something of a victory this year after the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans cut the commercial herring fishery in the Strait in half, allowing a harvest rate of 10%, down from 20% a year. last, and a total allowable catch of 7,850 tonnes.
First Nations food, social and ceremonial herring fisheries are not affected by the reduction.
“We are pleased with the minister’s decision, but you have to question the wisdom of allowing any kind of commercial fishing when the herring is not in recovery (all of BC),” Scott said.
The island’s conservation group has lobbied the federal government for a full moratorium.
But the commercial fishing sector has reacted with shock and anger to the new catch limits – given that it depends on harvesting herring as one of the few remaining winter fisheries, and is already under pressure immense due to widespread salmon fishing closures.
Scott suggests that a break in the commercial fishery would allow herring to thrive.
“There is potential for a viable fishery if it shuts down for a while and rebuilds the herring,” Scott said, adding that it would take work to become a community food fishery.
First Nations along the British Columbia coast have been sustainably dependent on herring for millennia, allowing the herring to spawn, accumulating sticky batches of fertilized eggs on kelp or eelgrass or submerged cedar branches before harvest some of the eggs and fish, he added.
Female herring lay up to 20,000 eggs and, when paired with the milt of male fish, provide enormous amounts of springtime nutrients along the shoreline and rich wealth for land animals such as bears and wolves, Scott said.
He points to harlequin ducks, with their splashes of blue and rust and white markings, strolling on the surface of the ocean, noting that they arrive about a week before the herring to mate and feed on rich foods before their summer migration.
“They come here in the thousands, up to 80% of the (winter coastal) population, to feed before flying east to nesting sites along fast-flowing streams in the Rocky Mountains. “, did he declare.
One in 10,000 eggs should survive, Scott said, noting larval and juvenile herring hang out in shallow waters and the Salish Sea before migrating offshore off the west coast of Vancouver Island two years later with their parents.
But the more observable benefactors of spawning herring can be heard long before they are seen.
As the Corona Sun approaches a rocky islet south of Hornby called Norris Rock, the bellowing and roar of hundreds of Steller sea lions fills the air as they jostle for position and in and out some water.
Some simply bask while others spar and push, and juveniles roll and writhe with each other in the water. The atmosphere is like a Club Med for sea lions.
A few hulking males with shaggy manes the length of a large couch and probably weighing over 2,000 pounds rest in various spots on the rock, monitoring the activity with what appears to be boredom.
The sea lions seem oblivious and uninterested as the Sun Corona approaches and the exclamations of admiration from all on board.
“They’re very smart,” Scott said. “I back off if they get nervous, but they recognize the boat.”
Participants in the herring spawn tour include Islanders themselves as well as residents of Vancouver Island and residents of Kelowna and Prince George.
But people come from near and far to take part in the boat tours and the Herring Fest, Scott said.
“We even get people from California and England,” he added.
“I think people just want to know more about the environment around them and how important this amazing little fish is.”
EnvironmentFishFisheries and Oceans Canada