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The herring spawn (aka herring run) in March is one of our area's most exciting - and unfortunately, short-lived - spectacles.
What makes it special is the turning of the ocean colour to a unique turquoise, seemingly endless colonies of birds, easily spotted wildlife like bald eagles and sea lions, and many, many fishing boats. Every year, I'm left curious to know more about the swarm of activity. So this year, I went to my friend, Jeff Belveal, a 3rd generation commercial fisherman, for more insight into this Spring-launching show in Parksville Qualicum Beach. Here's what I learned from him. The flurry of herring spawn activity tends to only last a few days. It's difficult to make plans to be in the right place at the right time to take it all in as the schedule is Mother Nature's. About all that can be said with some certainty is that it will almost definitely happen in March.
Geographically, the excitement happens mainly from Comox to just south of Nanaimo. French Creek (and French Creek Marina), between Parksville and Qualicum Beach, is often centre stage. So, what's it all about? As the herring eggs (roe) come to maturity in the females, the herring begin to swim in more intense schools and move closer to the shore where marine plants such as eelgrass and kelp can be found to spawn on. The males release milky sperm ("milt") into the water to fertilize the released roe. This is what causes the ocean to turn a milky turquoise colour. If you get the chance to see this from the air, take it!
“ ...the herring begin to swim in more intense schools and move closer to the shore where marine plants such as eelgrass and kelp can be found to spawn on. ” Sharyn Sadauskas
Thousands of the laid eggs will never become herring larvae as birds and mammals consider this a meal set out for feasting. Of course, the wildlife are not the only ones who will enjoy the harvest. That brings us to the fishing boats. As a former Prairie girl, the sight of dozens of fishing boats just off our shores, so close that you can hear the rattle of the nets, is captivating. The herring fishery's goal is to catch the herring when the roe are at peak maturity and still inside the female fish. Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans determines who can fish and when. There are two different types of boats that will participate and both are not necessarily given the go-ahead at the same time. Gill netters will fish shallow waters close to shore and seine boats work in deeper waters.
Each herring license holder has a maximum fishing quota. The government issued quotas ensure sustainability of the herring population. The fishermen hope for a catch with a roe-to-fish weight percentage of 15% or more. The roe is sold to buyers in Japan and the remaining fish is mainly used in fertilizers and pet foods. Sometimes, there will be a second spawn a couple weeks after the first. In this case, you may not see a lot of fishing boats if they have already filled their quotas.
If you find the fisheries side of the herring spawn particularly interesting, you can keep an eye on fishery notices. In Spring, visit our Parksville Qualicum Beach Facebook page as we'll share herring spawn photos and videos there.
Where to next? Check out the March-April Brant Wildlife Festival.
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