The early bird catches the herring

Seaside Times April 2011

The Early Bird Catches The Herring

By Chris Genovali, Executive Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Caroline Fox has been a biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s marine conservation program since 2007 and serves as Raincoast’s lead scientist for our work on marine birds. After completing a B.Sc. from the University of Victoria with a focus in Biology and Environmental Studies, Caroline was awarded a M.Sc. in Biology and Ecology from Case Western Reserve University with thesis research undertaken at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. Prior to her work with Raincoast, Caroline was involved with marine research projects with the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

After completing four years of intensive marine bird surveys in the waters adjacent to the Great Bear Rainforest, in 2010 Caroline presented some of Raincoast’s findings at the 1st World Seabird Conference held in Victoria and in our comprehensive report What’s at Stake? The cost of oil on British Columbia’s priceless coast, which we released last year on the 21st anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. In 2011, we are continuing our analysis and focusing attention on the application of this research.

Caroline will be heading up the following important effort with regard to marine birds and oil for Raincoast this year. As formal interveners in the federal Joint Review Panel (JRP) process for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, among various marine and terrestrial issues we are focusing on for the JRP, Raincoast will address the potential impact to marine birds from proposed oil tanker traffic on BC’s north coast, both in terms of chronic oiling and catastrophic spills.

As a consequence of her observations of wildlife at herring spawn sites along the BC coast during the course of our marine bird surveys, as well as coming to the realization that herring act to subsidize terrestrial and intertidal ecosystems, Caroline began a PhD program at the University of Victoria in 2009.

On Vancouver Island, Pacific herring spawn each spring in Quatsino Sound.  For marine birds and mammals, the herring spawn signals an opportunity to gorge after a lean winter.  From the moment they are laid as eggs on nearshore kelps and eelgrass, these oily fish are a major prey species and an ecological mainstay for coastal marine ecosystems.

Like salmon in coastal rainforests, Caroline asked asked whether spawning Pacific herring contribute a similar pulse of nutrients and energy to terrestrial ecosystems. Our research, done in partnership with the University of Victoria, seeks to trace the myriad of ecological linkages between herring spawn events and terrestrial ecosystems that have long been overlooked.  This past winter, we published a peer-reviewed paper in the scientific journal Ursus that relates to one of the surprises Caroline has uncovered thus far during the course of her “Herring Coast” field work; on the west coast of Vancouver Island, black bears are denning and hibernating near the beach, just a few metres above sea level.