A Boon to the Ecosystem
By Ryan Bowman
Every spring, between mid-March and early April, the Vancouver Island’s coastline, particularly in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area, comes to life and plays host to the country’s largest Pacific Herring spawn. In addition to tinting the area’s waters a dazzling aquamarine blue – a result of the herring milt mingling with the salt water – the spawn attracts an endless menagerie of marine life, from Brant Geese and surf scoters to seals and sea lions.
“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 its shallow waters, sheltered coves and abundance of eelgrass has long made the Parksville Qualicum Beach area a favored breeding spot for the small silver fish on their annual migration north, there was a period from the 70s to the 90s when the stocks fell to critically low levels.
But thanks to stricter fishing regulations and better environmental practices, Kingzett says herring numbers are on the rebound. And while the size of the stock can vary from year to year – depending on factors including water temperature and survival rates from the previous year – he hopes this year’s numbers to exceed 2013′s total of 93,000 tons.
“That’s small compared to some of the historic runs,” he says. “We’re talking millions of fish coming in to spawn.”
In addition to providing a rare and authentic experience for locals and visitors alike, Kingzett says a healthy herring spawn is important to the ecosystem as a whole, as the eggs provide an important source of protein for salmon, birds, and other marine mammals.
“Herring are very important because they’re what we call a feed fish,” he says. “The health of the herring is really tied to the health of the entire food chain.”
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.
“On a regional level, what we’re trying to do here is illustrate these really large biological events that are happening in our waters,” he says. “It’s also a great opportunity to talk about conservation and the need to continue to promote the health of the marine environment here.”
Kingzett, who looks forward to the spawning spectacle every spring – more as a nature lover than as a researcher – recommends anyone with an interest in nature visit Parksville Qualicum Beach in the coming weeks.
“For years, I’ve gone out to watch it from the shore, but last year was the first time I actually experienced it out in a boat,” he says. “Either way, I think seeing something like this firsthand is definitely a privilege. It’s a rare and impressive sight.”