The herring coast

by Caroline Fox
Raincoast Biologist and UVic PhD Student

Hazard Point April 2009

Leaning over the side of my skiff at dusk, I peer into the clear, blue waters off Hazard Point, Quatsino Sound. Just below the calm surface, hundreds of tonnes of tightly-packed Pacific herring school. They dart and boil in a camouflaged blue-black unison broken only by the occasional silvery flash of their sides. Contained within their bodies, eggs and milt are almost ready to be released in one of the most spectacular events on the coast; the annual spawning of herring.

And it all begins sometime during the night. Aggregations of male herring release milt or sperm, coloring the nearshore water chalky white as they “milk the beach”, as the fishermen say. And in the opaque white water, each female herring lays thousands of sticky eggs upon the eelgrass and kelps, upon the rockweed and upon the rocks themselves. Once buoyant canopy kelps grow heavy with layers of eggs and in a few places, they begin to lay down in great tangled mats on the seafloor.

In the vast kelp forest spread out before me at dawn, hundreds of Mew, Bonaparte’s, Glaucous-winged, Thayer’s, Herring and California Gulls forage on herring eggs in a wild, swirling cacophony interrupted by predatory Bald Eagles. Scoters, dabbling ducks and cormorants whir past on their way to feed in the sheltered bays further up the inlet while hundreds more settle together in dense flocks in deeper waters. Sea otters dive, bringing up kelp blades encrusted in eggs to be eaten at the surface. A grey whale snuffles in the shallows while humpback whales and Stellar’s sea lions chase the adult herring back and forth across the bay.

As one of the great, historically abundant and heavily exploited fishes of the North Pacific Ocean, Pacific herring still underpin much of the coastal foodweb. Spawning where the land meets the sea, Pacific herring also provide an opportunity to examine the trophic relationships and ecological consequences of a herring pulse to coastal ecosystems, many of which remain unknown to science. Unlike a number of other areas along the coast, herring still reliably spawn in this remote inlet located on Northern Vancouver Island. Part of the ‘silver wave’, this spawn is one of many that still stretch south to north along the Pacific coast of North America and over to Asia each year.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.