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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.