On March 15, 2014 a crowd gathered in the pouring rain to witness a rare sight. Over 350 Pacific white-sided dolphins were darting through the Squamish harbour, chasing a school of unassuming little silver fish. The Squamish River outlet in Howe Sound, an hour’s drive from Vancouver, was once home to a massive school of herring, which supported the Sockeye and Coho salmon, as well as rockfish, dolphins and killer whales. But since a surge of industrialization in the 1970’s, the herring populations slowly declined, as did the other animals that relied on them. But now the herring were back, along with the dolphins. The spectacle intensified when a pod of killer whales showed up and trapped the dolphins in the channel. The captive audience watched as the dolphins made a dash for freedom one by one.

Pacific white-sided dolphins feed on massive schools of herring.

That was the moment when the power of herring dawned on Jack Cooley. “That’s really what got me started on it, “ he said. “This is bigger than us.” As the co-chairman of the Squamish Streamkeepers Society and an avid fisherman, he had seen the ecosystem spiral over the decades. For the last two years, Cooley and 100 other Streamkeepers had worked at enhancing creeks where the Coho spawn after travelling many kilometers upstream. They try to make this journey easier for the fish, by removing beaver dams and other obstructions, and rescuing thousands of stranded juveniles that get trapped in small pools during dry summers. Those efforts were rewarded with a 50% increase in Coho returns.

The Squamish Streamkeepers hauling juvenile Coho salmon over land and releasing them in safe waters.

Coho, however, do not live their entire lives in freshwater; they spend much of their time in the open ocean where they rely on herring as a major food source. Saving one species would require saving the other. So, the Streamkeepers turned their attention to herring.Thanks to nutrient-rich upwelling currents, British Columbia’s coast provides herring with plenty of food. But what they lack is suitable spawning grounds, like the eelgrass beds that have disappeared in a wave of coastal development and industrialization.  Instead, the herring spawn on creosote pilings of at and wharfs that leak toxic oil and kill off as much as 99% of the eggs.

A piling covered in thousands of tiny herring eggs right next to oily residue that can kill them off.

By wrapping the pilings in fish-friendly material, the Streamkeepers managed to protect the eggs from the brunt of the toxins. With a few more improvements to their methods, like float lines and submerged nets that keep the eggs safe from frost and oil residue, they achieved an even higher hatch-out rate.  With millions of herrings hatched over the last few months, and more coming this week, 2018 will be a billion-egg year for the Squamish Streamkeepers.

A floating herring-egg net, one of the solutions to oil residue that the Streamkeepers have engineered.

“We thought we wouldn’t have a billion for a couple more years,” John Matsen, another member of the Streamkeepers, told the Vancouver Sun. In fact, the success is so soaring that they’re concerned about keeping up with the expanded spawning area. (They donated one artificial spawning net covered in herring eggs to Ocean Wise’s Vancouver Aquarium. Visitors can see the fry dart around in the Stanley Park Shores Exhibit in the Pacific Canadian Pavilion.)

The ecosystem in Howe Sound is supported by an equally rich and interconnected community of locals interested in restoring nature. The recovery includes the efforts of the Squamish nation, dozens of citizen-science and outdoor-education groups, all of whom play their part in bringing life back to ravaged coastlines. Jack Cooley wants to recreate that moment in Squamish harbour again, whales and dolphins feeding and chasing the herring, this time in Vancouver’s downtown inlet of False Creek.

Megan Bull is studying environmental science at the University of British Columbia, while writing for the Ocean Wise’s multi-media site Ocean.org and the Aquablog. 



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3 Responses

  1. Dennis B. DEL TORRE

    Is there a major herring fishery anymore. I remember in the 70s boats wd sink because they OVERLOADED with herring. What happened to that abundance?

    • Ocean Wise

      Hi Dennis,
      Here’s a response to your question from Ocean Wise Senior Research Scientist Jeff Marliave:

      Before the “reduction” fishery was stopped in 1970 the fleet was catching adult herring for their oil and fishmeal, but when the fishery was reopened (1972) it was directed at the eggs (the ”roe” fishery) which took place right when herring were spawning during spring. The stocks tended to aggregate in response to the noise of the seine fleet and the demography of spawning changed until management was altered in the 1990s to prevent casualties from overloaded boats sinking. The current “pooled roe fishery” is a bit slower so that the fleet can be more accurate in getting the right quota, but coast-wide (US and Canada) the stocks have contracted. Only the Strait of Georgia still has a high biomass of herring supporting a big fishery, but controversy exists over whether there is overfishing. All this is greatly oversimplified and many conflicting opinions exist.

      You also might find this timeline about the Pacific herring fishery helpful:
      Thanks for your interest.

  2. Bob Ostle

    Fascinating story and answers my question about where the herring fry at VsnAqua came from.


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