Spawning Spectacle!

Herring Roe
Herring roe on fucus, a nutritional meal for many birds and animals. Photo © Guy Monty.

Each year herring spawns around Vancouver Island, British Columbia in early March. This year is no exception. Last week, I heard that the herring were spawning near French Creek between Parksville and Qualicum Beach. This area has traditionally been one of the most important spawning areas on the British Columbia Coast. The spawn attracts tens of thousands of sea birds, as well as seals, and sea lions. It is a real spectacle!

In some ways, it is the foundation of all the ocean life around Vancouver Island. Herring is the most populous fish in the ocean here. It has the largest biomass too. And the wildlife knows this and depends on the fecundity of the herring spawn.
One of the birds that depend on it is a little sea goose called the Brant (Branta bernicla). Smaller than our familiar Canada Goose, it sports a black head and neck. However, the white patch is around the neck not under the chin. It starts arriving on the shores of the Vancouver Island in late February in time to feed on eelgrass that is impregnated with herring roe. This is a vital food source that will sustain them on their migration to Alaska. This little goose has inspired an annual festival, the Brant Festival where there are interpretive tours, a bird-watching competition, art shows, and a number of other events spaced across March & April.

Brant (Branta bernicla)
Brant (Branta bernicla) feeding on seaweed and herring roe. Photo © Sandy McRuer.

Other sea birds that depend on herring roe are vast flocks, or rafts, of sea-ducks like Black Scoters, Surf Scoters and White-winged Scoters, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Ducks, Mergansers, and Goldeneyes. These rafts can contain as many as 13,000 birds. They all time their migration to coincide with the spawn. They gorge on the eggs. It has been documented that Scoters, for instance, experience a significant weight gain from feeding on herring roe just prior to their migration to their breeding grounds. You can think of these large rafts of birds as a staging area before migration.

Brant, Gulls, and Ducks
A mixed flock of Brant, gulls and ducks waiting for the spawn. Photo © Guy Monty.

Gulls also gather from all parts of the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia), interior island lakes and the Alberni Inlet. Sorting through enormous flocks of up to 10 different species of gulls can be rewarding. Rarities like Iceland Gulls, Slaty-back Gulls, Ivory Gulls, and Glaucous Gulls show up at this time of year. Keep in mind that sorting through groups of upwards of 100,000 gulls is very time consuming and patience and a spotting scope are both required. The gulls often erupt into whirling masses of birds when a predator like a bald eagle scares them up or when the herring fleet goes to work.

Gulls
Countless gulls gather in Parksville and Qualicum Bay on Vancouver Island, BC during the herring spawn. Photo © Guy Monty.

Yes, the herring fleet, another “creature” that gathers to await the spawning of these fish. It is a very controversial fishery. Old timers tell stories about how abundant the herring were even 20 years ago! They say the herring is much less abundant now and the fish are smaller. And they are disgusted to see it still happening when the abundance of the herring is a mere shadow of their former numbers.

The fishery was closed for four years starting in 1967. Before this the harvest techniques and use of the herring was primarily for rendering into fish meal and fish oil. When fishing started again, the goal was to produce high-value roe for the lucrative Japanese market.

Herring Boats
Herring boats gather for the herring fishery. Photo © Sandy McRuer.

As a result, there are stories all over the west coast of fishermen making over $30,000 in a few days fishing for herring. It is very intense and very exciting. There are stories about herring skiffs sinking from the amount of fish they have caught! The fleet converges in one spot. Herring skiffs go out and jockey for position. Spotting planes fly overhead looking for the choicest spots. And larger buyer boats sit nearby with large signs announcing that they are willing to buy the herring on the spot.

Both residents and visitors to Vancouver Island are advised to head for Parksville and Qualicum Bay to view this wildlife spectacle. The Brant Wildlife Festival has a number of excellent events and activities in March and April that celebrate the return of the herring, the Brant, and the other birds and animals that depend on the herring spawn.

About the Contributors:

Long-time Vancouver Island resident, Sandy McRuer, runs Rainbird Excursions, an ecotourism and sightseeing business in the Port Alberni & Qualicum Beach area. He is an ex-forester and avid birder. More of his images can be found on Flickr.

Thanks to Guy Monty for additional images under a Creative Commons Licence. See more of Guy’s photography on Flickr.