Haawa for all the fish caught this week. We have just transited Skidegate Narrows and are running along the north side of Chaatl Island. We are heading out to the west coast of Haida Gwaii for a week to look for herring eggs. This survey has been done annually for two decades. Data collected from the DFO-funded survey is used to estimate the amount of herring that spawn in various locations.
We are aboard the Atlas, a 43-foot steel trawler, captained by James Nickerson. Our crew consists of myself and Barrett Johnson. With us are James’ eight-year-old son Hunter and Victor Fradette, a recently retired DFO resource manager who has developed a unique way of assessing the breeding stock. Victor has been teaching us his methods and training us so that we can continue the survey without him in the future.
Mature Pacific herring spawn in the spring. They tend to school up in protected bays and inlets. Male herring will come in first and expel their milt. The females soon follow and deposit their eggs, usually along the shorelines in areas with vegetation. Most eggs will adhere to some type of seaweed, sometimes in many layers, and gestate for around three weeks before tiny herring emerge to continue the cycle.
Billions of eggs are released in these spawning events, turning the water a milky blue-green and attracting a wide array of fauna, including seals, sea lions, whales, bears, fish, gulls, eagles, and even wolves on some parts of the coast.
Arriving in Port Chanal, Victor, Barrett and I hop into our 14-foot rigid-hull inflatable boat and putter along the shallows scanning the rocks for some sign. Victor has found spawn here in past years and sure enough, all over the intertidal rock weed, we immediately spot thick clusters of tiny clear fish eggs. Victor estimates the spawn to be a week old. Barrett slips into a dry suit, and with a mask and snorkel he floats over the shallow bottom. I maneuver the inflatable along the shore as Barrett holds on, surveying the sea floor. We document exactly where we locate spawn, the type of vegetation with and without eggs, and the density of spawn in each area. The resulting data will be used to estimate the amount of herring that spawned in Port Chanal.
We are heading north now to Port Louis. Victor explains how there has been a steady downward trend in herring numbers since he began assessing stocks in the 1980s. Historically, herring populated the coast in mind-boggling numbers. Herring populations and catches are measured in tonnes rather than pieces.
Their lives consist mainly of trying to avoid getting eaten by innumerable predators. Almost any larger fish that comes into contact with herring will consume it. As well, dozens of species of birds and mammals chase herring in every phase of life. Undoubtedly, the most efficient predator of herring is the human. Massive seine boats can purse hundreds of tons in one set. Of the thousands of tons of Pacific herring removed from the oceans annually, just a fraction is actually consumed by humans. Roe sacs are removed from female herring to go to markets in Asia. Most of what is left is rendered for food for livestock and farmed fish.
In past years, Port Louis had one of the largest and most reliable spawns. On this day, as we scan the rocks and sea floor, we realize with disappointment that the herring have not arrived yet. Severe weather keeps us in a sheltered bay for two days. Finally, the winds lessen and we head south. We check Nesto Inlet: no evidence; then Kano Inlet: no evidence. The southernmost portion of the survey is Englefield Bay. We drop anchor in Mackenzie Cove. There are a lot of gulls and a couple bears on the shore. Could that be a sign?
In the morning we jump in the small boat and motor to shore. The tide is at mid-ebb. We peer down through the clear water and see a large bed of eelgrass weighted with a thick layer of herring roe. The remainder of the morning is spent pulling Barrett through the chilly ocean until we have surveyed the whole bay.
Heading back through Skidegate Narrows toward town, we contemplate what the future holds for this keystone species of the marine food web. Our survey indicates that while there are fish returning to spawn in places, they are not nearly as abundant as in past decades. There are greater numbers reported in Gwaii Haanas, and hopefully fish will return this year to the kelp beds in Skidegate and Masset Inlets. We are thankful that there will be no commercial seining of herring in Haida Gwaii waters this year and we hope the stocks can rebound, knowing that these small silver fish are a clear indicator of the ocean’s health and wealth.