Herring Spawn Head’s Up

It’s all in the timing and it’s easy to miss. Last spring I was lucky, and the kids and I witnessed the amazing spectacle that is this country’s largest annual Pacific herring spawn. In other years, I’ve been a day or two late or early.

Herring Spawn at Little Qualicum Beach in March, 2013
The aquamarine colour of the water is a sure sign that the spawn is on! This photo taken in early March, 2013 at Little Qualicum Beach.

When the herring arrive in March, the coastlines of Parksville Qualicum Beach comes to life. In addition to tinting the area’s waters a dazzling aquamarine blue – a result of the herring milt mingling with the tepid salt water – the spawn attracts an endless menagerie of marine life, from Brant Geese and surf scoters to seals and sea lions. Thousands of gulls and large numbers of bald eagles gather for the feast.

Brant Geese Feeding
Brant Geese feeding on herring eggs, eelgrass, and seaweed at Little Qualicum River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia in 2011.

“We have tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl that basically follow this pulse of productivity that starts down in California and moves northward as the water warms,” says Brian Kingzett, Deep Bay Marine Field Station Manager. “I sort of liken it to the marine equivalent of the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, where every spring the bloom moves from southern Japan to northern Japan.”

While there was a period from the 70s to the 90s when herring stocks fell to critically low levels, Kingzett says numbers are on the rebound and expects this year’s spawn to exceed 2013’s total of 93,000 tonnes.

Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasi) Roe
Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasi) roe can be found coating fucus and other seaweed in the intertidal zone.

Known for its favourable climate and abundance of authentic outdoor activities, Parksville Qualicum Beach is certainly used to its share of tourism – and the spawning season is no different. Over the years, the herring spawn has become a major component of the annual Brant Wildlife Festival, which celebrates the recent resurgence of the Brant geese population and draws nature enthusiasts from around the world.

After getting involved with the festival in 2013, Kingzett says the Deep Bay Marine Field Station will play a bigger role this year, providing the public with lectures as well as boat tours.

“I think seeing the herring spawn firsthand is definitely a privilege,” Kingzett says. “It’s a rare and impressive sight.”

Further Reading and more Photographs:

  • Herring are Here – my experience in 2013 with the herring spawn at the mouth of the Little Qualicum River
  • Herring at Goose Spit – 2012’s spawn at Goose Spit in the Comox Valley
  • Herring Roe Feast – in 2011 I missed the spawn but experienced some excellent birding in the aftermath