The Broadcast / The Great Pacific Herring Spawn

The Great Pacific Herring Spawn

There are few places in the world with an abundance of nature like British Columbia. In the right place at the right time for the Pacific herring spawn, photographer Christie FitzPatrick describes the experience of having a front row seat to one of Nature’s most spectacular events.


5 min read

Words & Photography by Christie FitzPatrick

During a fleeting visit in 2015, I became completely enamored with the landscapes of British Columbia. I made the decision right there to relocate to Canada once I’d finished university. At the time I didn’t think it would be permanent, but I just picked up my Canadian passport last week. Wanting to stay close to the coast, I chose to lay down roots in the Sea to Sky corridor, a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean and the traditional and unceded lands of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Lil̓wat7úl (Lil’wat) Nations. This region’s natural landscapes and seasonal rhythms have become a huge part of my life as a landscape and lifestyle photographer.

Each spring, I feel a calling back to the ocean. Whether surfing, fishing (both of which I’m still exceptionally average at), searching for whales or just being on the water, in the summer it’s where I feel most content. My formative years were spent in Cornwall. I wasn’t born Cornish, but I still feel that place in my bones. Spending a good chunk of your childhood near the ocean, you have a lifelong taste for saltwater. Much like Cornwall, the first sunny days of spring in coastal British Columbia feel pregnant with possibility. A vignette into the long, sun-drenched days to come, when afternoon’s slip by as you wait for the water to slacken and the sun rays to hit the mountains just right.

There’s something about the natural world’s physical transformation in spring that feels more cyclical to me than a typical January New Year. The flowers begin to bloom, leaves start to bud, and wildlife stirs from a deep slumber. Whales return from their winter migrations south, and bears - cubs in tow - slowly emerge from their winter dens. And in the Salish Sea, the small but mighty Pacific herring arrive in droves – an epic migration that provides a visual phenomenon and explosive start to spring.

The water 'boils' with the returning herring...

... their eggs providing a vital resource for local wildlife.

Each year, the waters in the Strait of Georgia turn a vibrant turquoise as tens of thousands of male herring release their milt to fertilize the females’ eggs. In late winter, food sources can be scarce, so the spawning herring and their eggs draw numerous ocean species: porpoises, sea lions (Stellar and California), seals, transient and resident orca, seabirds and eagles. Birds fly overhead plucking herring from the water, sea lions gorge from below, and bears roam the shorelines searching for an easy meal.

This spring, John Kelsey and Taylor Burk, two well established photographers in Canada, brought together photographers from around the world to witness this wildlife spectacle. We all came from diverse backgrounds, but shared a common passion for wildlife photography. Shooting wildlife is notoriously unpredictable, tricky and sometimes frustrating – and therefore somewhat addictive for all of those reasons. Shooting from a boat can be challenging at the best of times – and on this trip, not only were we moving in the waves, but our subjects were too.

We knew the best way to immerse ourselves in this pulse of marine energy was to be on the water, so we headed out each day on Captain John’s 42 foot cutter rigged sloop, Shambhala. Each day developed a blissful routine. From high up on Hornby Island, we used binoculars to scout for the turquoise ribbons drifting along the coastline before heading out on the water. As we boarded the boat, sea lions could be heard barking from the shore, gulls squawked manically overhead, and a rich, salty tinge hung in the air. We enjoyed a week punctuated with squeals of delight, belly laughs and stories shared over warm mugs of tea as the coastal waters exploded with life.

One thing is guaranteed of the spring herring run: anticipation. Photographers, researchers and conservationists join together on Hornby Island in hopes of witnessing this spectacular event, but nobody knows the exact day or time it’s all going to kick off. The typical predicted window is the first few weeks of March, and the spawn might last a few days, or a week, or more. There’s no knowing until you go.

This year, the spawn followed a fierce storm that saw ferries cancelled and all but the hardiest fisherman hidden, safe and warm in their cabins. We waited out the storm and were rewarded by a front-row seat to one of nature's most spectacular events.

Herring are a keystone species, integral to the multifaceted food web here in British Columbia. Their spawn provides crucial feasting opportunities for animals on land, in the sky, and in the ocean. These pivotal fish are at the center of huge controversy here in British Columbia, where herring management is intensely debated and commercial fishing fleets have exploited migrations of herring for decades. Whilst 80% of herring fisheries are now closed in British Columbia, on the East Coast of Vancouver Island the event continues each year. Up to 10% of the spawning herring recorded in the Strait of Georgia are able to be caught by commercial fisherman, with a slight increase in the permitted catch each year. This year’s quota was 9,251 tonnes of Pacific herring. For many local fisherman, the herring roe fishery has been an important income source for many generations. Conservation groups are pushing for a ‘temporary moratorium’ - a pause on commercial fishing operations to allow herring stocks to rebound, with the goal to allow for a sustainable fishery for years to come.

For many passionate wildlife and conservation photographers, the hope is that the migration of herring will be preserved for future generations. To experience the spectacle in person was a privilege, and a humbling reminder of the challenges faced by the many interdependent species that - like many of us - call the cold North Pacific waters ‘home’.


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