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Herring run tied to the salmon cycle

Herring eggs cling to sea flora and hatch in 10 days. - Pirjo Raits
Herring eggs cling to sea flora and hatch in 10 days.
— image credit: Pirjo Raits

The milky blue water comes alive as a massive ball of silvery herring mass together to prevent predators from feeding on them. The protective sphere, or bio mass ”herring ball,” is smashed apart constantly as sea lions, seals, salmon and killer whales drive their way through with their mouths open to catch the fish.

“It’s like a reverse lottery,” said biologist Brian Kingzett, “there’s so many herring there that the predators can’t get them all.”

It’s called the Silver Wave and it is one of nature’s yearly cycles. It’s the Pacific herring run and it turned the waters around Denman and Hornby Islands a milky blue. The herring are part of an important marine food chain and the location of the intense spawn varies each year.

For three days in the early part of March, the waters boiled with hundreds of millions of Pacific herring drawing in seals, sea lions, sea gulls, salmon, Brant geese, shore birds, killer whales and dolphins. Pacific herring are part of a complex marine ecosystem. The females lay down eggs and the males discharge their sperm directly into the water turning the water turquoise blue.

According to Kingzett, at herring spawning time more than 60,000 tonnes of Pacific herring may have left an estimated 3000 tonnes of small eggs  — 2mm each.

The 10-day hatch is timed for the early days of spring when phytoplankton start to bloom in marine waters and the herring will spawn right up on the beaches. Beaches in the Parksville-Qualicum area are closed to dogs to protect the Brant geese that are feeding on herring spawn. Every female herring lays approximately  2,000 eggs which hatch in about 10 days. The minute fish are microscopic and transparent - and succulent to those animals that feed on them.

“It’s very tied to the salmon cycle and the cycle is unique to this area,” said Kingzett.

As spring comes, the spawn moves up from San Francisco Bay, up the coast all the way to Alaska. Herring boats and wildlife compete for the fish. The herring fishers have a 2014 quota of approximate 15,700 tonnes spread between seiners and gill netters, the wildlife have no quota.

“It’s very important for wildlife and wild fowl,” said Kingzett. “The Brant geese fly up here and time their migration to the herring run.”

This area is the sole stopping off point for Brant geese migrating to Alaska and the Canadian arctic. They rely on the eggs, eelgrass, sea lettuce and seaweeds to sustain them for their long flight north.

Kingzett is the Deep Bay Marine Field Station manager. The 13,000-square-foot, $8.6-million spherical clam shell shaped field station is a unique teaching laboratory and experimental shellfish farm and a key part of Vancouver Island University. It is located on the shores of Baynes Sound located between Qualicum and Courtney. The field station treads lightly on the environment and walks the talk. It is a green research facility and is one of Canada’s greenest building with Platinum Leed certification. The field station is open year-round and supports research and educational opportunities over a wide range of subject areas including marine biology, environmental management, communities and conservation. Tours and customized workshops are available.

In fact, there is a yearly Brant Wildlife Festival in Parksville-Qualicum from March 1 to April 21, celebrating the herring spawn and the attendant Brant geese migration.

Currently the field station has an ongoing exhibition of art from regional artists as part of the Brant Wildlife Festival. The field station can be found at 370 Crome Pt. Rd, Deep Bay in Bowser.

The Parksville-Qualicum Tourism Association is selling the event as a  tourist attraction and it appears people are very interested in this unique phenomenon. It is becoming another local attraction along with the more familiar Horne Lake Caves, Coombs Country Market, Butterfly World, Cathedral Grove and Rathtrevor Beach. Resorts in Parksville and Qualicum offer a vast variety of accommodation options, from family-oriented vacation getaways to luxurious up-scale lodgings.

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