Herring Time

When the herring roe fishery happens each spring on the BC Coast, the seine boats and herring skiffs congregate close to shore because that is where the herring can be intercepted as they rush the beach to spawn. At night when the boats have their anchor lights on, it looks like a floating city just offshore.

Sea lions and seagulls and eagles patrol the area in hope of some tasty bites.

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Photo courtesy of P. Knettig

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It’s a bluebird day. Hard to believe it was rough and windy just a couple of days ago. Still it was fishable and the herring filled the seine nets. Then disaster struck as an extra heavy net caused a boat to list  and not recover. The fishing community lost a fellow fisherman. His brother is quoted on CTV News:

“They had a really big set. The boat was listing and Mel went down into the engine room to turn the pumps on, and while he was down there the boat rolled over.”

It brings home to all of us once again, how dangerous fishing is. While the fleet mourns the loss of one of their own, the fishery goes on, as it must. The pretty night lights, and the bluebird daytime sky and sea belie the sombre mood and the heavy hearts of the fishing fleet.

Herring and Other Delicacies

Near the end of February and into March, the herring congregate and spawn near the beaches of the east side of Vancouver Island. The arrival of the herring means the beginning of the fat time for other animals  who look forward to eating well, after a hard winter. Here, in a photo taken by one of my neighbours Paul Knettig, the seagulls and eagles await the arrival of the herring. But the eagles are not above preying on other guests at the same dinner table. Among the many seabirds who also enjoy the arrival of the herring, are the loons. It seems that loons are one of the favourite foods on the eagles’ menu.P1020586

Here are the wing bones and a few feathers of what I believe was a common loon. I found this wing under a tree in my yard.

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Here is a close up picture of it.

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Now, aren’t those feathers similar to the wing feathers of this loon in the photo below (taken a few years earlier). I had picked up the pieces the eagle had dropped from a tall fir tree in my yard, and put them together again in the shape they might have been in.IMGP0338

With dead herring lying around on the beaches, the eagles are eating well, but they still prefer to bring their food to a safer spot to be eaten. Sometimes they get clumsy and drop things. That’s why I found a herring head under this same tree where I later found the loon. Thinking I would write about it in a blog post, I picked up the herring head and put it in the empty wheelbarrow for safekeeping until I could go get my camera. Alas! When I arrived with my camera, the herring head was gone.

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And Emma’s breath had a distinctly fishy smell.

Emma 1“Well, you didn’t say not to….”

Nature’s Orchestra

It’s early morning. I throw a jacket over my housecoat and take our two dogs outside. We have a big yard so there is no need to go far, but I do have to step outside with them or they would just huddle by the door and wait to be let back in the house for breakfast. All winter it has been cold, often with rain pelting down sideways in the wind. I’m always glad to get back in the house to warm up (and to do that before any early walkers see me).

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But the other day, the air was noticeably warmer. The breeze carried a scent of trees and warming earth. The warm, pink rays of the sunrise said good morning to the snow-covered hilltops. Pussywillows on the neighbour’s willow tree seemed to have opened overnight.

The sounds around me were definitely of spring. I tried to identify each one.  No more morning stillness. I heard the calls of Eurasian collared doves, flickers, towhees, chickadees, juncos, nuthatches and two other songbirds I couldn’t identify, and of course the big indicator of spring – the robin. And right after the robin’s call came the scratchy cawing of crows. They are already cruising to find the early nesting sites of the robins so they can raid them. If they don’t get the eggs, they’ll get the chicks. Good old Mother Nature will provide well for the crows, as she does every year.

In the waters of the bay below, sea lions barked to call each other over a feed of herring while the loons filled the quiet gaps with their lonely calls.

It’s like an orchestra here on some spring mornings. The songbirds are the strings,clarinets, and piccolos, while the doves are the oboes, and the loon is the flute. The sea lions are the tubas, and the crows are the brushes, tambourines, and snare drums.

And me? I guess I could be the opera singer, calling my dogs to come in now for breakfast.

 

Eaglet

These noble birds are the reason I have to keep a close watch on my new puppy. Bald eagles have been known to swoop down and pick up small pets and bring them to their nests to feed to their young. Everything has to live, but I don’t want my puppy to become eagle food, so I watch out for her diligently.

This eaglet is from last year, but the nest is active again this year. I can tell by the constant shrieking of the eagles and the ongoing cawing of the crows who pester them. One day I’d like to see the eagles get fed up them (literally). We watched the eagles as they built the nest. For many days they landed hard on dead branches of the tall firs, breaking them off. When they fell, the eagles picked them up and flew to their building site. What a lot of work to make a nest of that size.

The finished work of art is just next to my neighbour’s house, so she took this photo and sent it to me.

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Courtesy of Begonia Duran

Yes, eagles have to eat too, so I was thinking of making up a sign for them, “Rabbit Restaurant, This Way,” and then have the arrow point to the copse of trees and shrubs in my backyard where I know they like to hide. The eagles are beautiful to see, except when you have a small dog or cat.

Fog and Fumes

I had not planned to stop. I was in a hurry to meet my sister and I had an hour and a half’s drive to get there. Already running late because I had to stop for a fuel up, I waffled over what to do when, across the street, I saw the fog rolling in towards the river mouth. I had made the mistake of bringing the camera along in the car. It was only my little point-and-click Fujipix (small and unobtrusive because we were going shopping), but it pleaded with me to stop and take some pictures.

In the estuary, a gazillion seagulls had congregated near the mouth of the river. I finished fueling and drove along, until I got to a convenient pullout just down the road.

I didn’t take time to worry about whether I was shooting into the sun or whether the zoomed-in picture would be in focus. I was in a hurry to get going, but I couldn’t pass up the mist wafting into the estuary.

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The more sensible shot was up towards the river mouth.

040aBut I couldn’t resist shooting into the sun and out towards the bay. Beginning photographers don’t care about those things too much.

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So I have a straight-ahead shot, one to the right, and one to the left. All that was left was a good close-up shot of all those seagulls right in front of me. I zoomed in a bit, but it didn’t seem to be enough. Those birds still looked awfully small. I took a few steps forward towards the edge of the bank and then it hit me.

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Fumes of decay! I rushed back to the car. NOW I remembered why the seagulls were all assembled here, making such a racket. They were squabbling over the carcasses of the spawned out chum salmon that lay everywhere in the shallows of the estuary. It was salmon spawning time; a bounty of food for seagulls, eagles, and many others.

Roe Herring Fishery

*(Click to enlarge beach photos.)

Herring are important. They are a food source for sea lions and salmon, as well as for people.

In February and early March, the herring gather in selected areas along the coast of British Columbia to spawn in shallow waters.  They seek out areas with kelp and eel grass beds because this is what the roe will attach to.

In an aerial view you can see the herring spawn as pale streaks in the water. Altogether these streaks measured about 35 miles along beach areas of Vancouver Island between Comox and Nanaimo during this year’s roe herring season.

For the herring fleet it is important that the fishery take place at the right time. The herring must be showing up in healthy numbers and have grown to an acceptable size and roe maturity. They must be harvested before they spawn, since it is the roe that is so lucrative on the Japanese market. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans collects samples of herring to determine the optimum time for the fishery to begin.

When the fishers get the “go ahead,” seiners (large vessels with heavy nets) encircle a school of fish with a net and pull it together like a purse, hence the name “purse seining.” Smaller boats called gillnetters use finer monofilament nets and gillnet the fish. Each licence holder has a quota that is their allowable catch. Let’s hope the weather happens to co-operate at the critical fishing time.

The herring are brought to processing plants where the female fish are stripped of their eggs for shipping to Japan.  Most of the remaining fish is reduced for use in fertilizers and pet foods.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

Once the escaped herring have spawned, they return to the deeper ocean, leaving their roe to fortune. Some of these herring eggs stick to kelp and eel grass while great skeins of them wash up on the beach to become food for the shorebirds and eagles.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.

It is a time of plenty for the diners; the last major feeding at nature’s table. Bleaker times lie ahead for them.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Knettig.