Birds are often the first sign of something interesting happening below the water’s surface, and that was the case earlier this week around Port McNeill.
“I was notified by looking out my window, and because I study humpbacks, I know to be very in tune with what the birds are doing,” said Jackie Hildering, Co-Founder of Marine Education and Research Society based in Port McNeill. “I noticed that the eagles were grabbing herring, and I noticed they were big herring.”
Hildering says there used to be herring spawns around Johnstone Straight and the Broughton Archipelago, but almost all of them have “flat-lined.” There are still incidental spawns closer to Port Hardy.
“But never before in anybody’s recollection has it happened right in the bay in Port McNeill down to Hyde Creek. So this is extraordinary for us,” added Hildering.
The spawn coloured the water a milky white beginning on Saturday, March 25. It continued for several kilometres along the shore south and north of Port McNeill.
A satellite photo from space even showed the spawn along the shoreline.
“What I feel has happened is we’ve got a strong survival of some young herring, and they have come in, and there’s quite a tonnage of herring that have then spawned right from the Nimpkish Estuary right up past Port McNeill,” said Sointula’s Gord Curry, a retired herring surveyor and researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Curry says there could be roughly 10,000 tons of spawning herring, which, while impressive for this area, would be much smaller than the 30,000 tons normally seen around Denman and Hornby Islands this time of year.
So what does it all mean?
“So, we don’t know.” said Hildering. “One data point does not make a trend, so we do not know what this means, which is why we have strived to ensure that it does get documented by DFO. So while it might be tempting to think, ‘wow, look at all the herring in my little piece of the planet,’ that does not mean that herring is ok.”
The eggs will hatch out around the 11 day mark but after that, mortality rates are very high.
“From egg to returning fish it’s something like 98.5 per cent mortality,” added Curry.
Animals have enjoyed the herring spawn as much as people have.
“I am amongst the many on Vancouver Island who had a front row seat to something that was extraordinary,” said Hildering.
“We’re literally bearing witness to the water going white from the milt from the males, to all the cacophony of birds and the growling of stellar sea lions and the barking of California sea lions. Pacific white-sided dolphins came into the bay. Bigg’s killer whales were out front so suddenly there’s this amplification and magnification of the ecosystem and chance to see what should be.”