By contributor James Mackinnon. Read more from the Museum News series.
As you read this, one of the ocean’s great feeding frenzies is occurring just off our shores. Eventually, it will extend up the entire BC coast.
The annual spawn of the Pacific herring, which brings millions of fish to near-coastal waters to lay their eggs on substrates such as Bull Kelp or eelgrass, is the stimulant for an astounding accumulation of wildlife that gathers around the breeding grounds to gorge on the herring roe (eggs). In many parts of the BC coast, the spawn represents the first large feeding event of the year, and the fats and nutrients that are gained by this feed bring benefits all the way up the trophic ladder to the largest of marine and terrestrial predators.
While the spawn occurs at different times on different parts of the coast, around the southern Salish Sea the first few weeks of March are the best time to watch the action.
In late February, an excursion of students and staff from VIU’s field research station at Deep Bay set out to watch the spawn. The Baynes Sound/Deep Bay area has long been known as a herring hotspot, attracting wildlife viewers and fisherman alike, but is also the site of a considerable amount of marine research. Marine ecology, shellfish aquaculture, and engagement with coastal communities are just a few important topics that people at the field station are working on. VIU’s Brian Kingzette and the rest of the Deep Bay crew generously supplied their time and vessel for this viewing opportunity.
Neck Point Park, just off Hammond Bay Rd., provides an excellent viewing spot. On the right day, clouds of white milt that cover the surface of the ocean are often visible from the shoreline as the males fertilize the females’ eggs. The secondary effects of the spawn will remain for weeks as huge amounts of wildlife close in on the shorelines to feed on the recently laid eggs. Gulls, ducks, and birds of prey circle overhead; seals and sea lions jockey amongst each other for the prime feeding zones; and Orcas watch. It is one of the most diverse and productive feeding affairs of the year.
For more information on the springtime Pacific herring spawn, and to see samples of much of the marine life found around Vancouver Island, visit the Museum of Natural History, run and curated by students and faculty from various sciences departments. The museum is open to students and the public on Mondays from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, Tuesdays 1:30 to 2:30 pm, and Thursdays 11:30 am to 1:30 pm. More information is available on their Facebook and website.