Spring Spawn Spectacle on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island's shores to burst with wildlife this March & April

Victoria, BC
By Ryan Bowman

Herring milt turning water aquamarine blue
With their endless sand beaches and warm Pacific waters, the popular coastal communities of Parksville and Qualicum Beach have long been a summertime hotspot for locals and tourists alike. But thanks to an annual wildlife spectacle, the area's shores will be blooming with a different kind of visitor this March.

Every spring, between mid-March and early April, the coastline 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 tepid 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.

The pacific herring

While its shallow waters, sheltered coves and abundance of eelgrass has long made the Parksville Qualicum Beach area a favoured 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 tonnes.

“That's small compared to some of the historic runs,” he says. “We're talking millions of fish coming in to spawn.”

Sea lions congregate on herring 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.”

Known for its favourable climate and abundance of authentic outdoor activities, Vancouver Island is certainly used to its share of tourism – and the spawning season is no different. 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.

Avian extravaganza 
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.”

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