Forces of nature combine to create unique magic in the annual Spring herring fishery

FB Cover There is a magic that descends on both the east and west coasts of the Island late in February or early in March each year.  There is no set date, nor agenda. It is, for those who know about it, one of the major happenings of the year – an event orchestrated by nature, not the hand of man. Some years it lasts upwards of a week; other years, it lasts less than 24 hours.  It draws many thousands of residents and visitors to the beaches to watch in rapt attention, a mesmerizing and, somehow, exciting occasion that is a sure harbinger of Spring.           

Herring fishery at night

Once the fishery is open fishermen work day and night , creating the effect of a city on the water when darkness falls. Thousands of gulls swirl around the boats, sea lions bark and the thrumming of the boat motors becomes a unique lullaby

Ever since the 1970s, when I first experienced the annual herring fishery on the west coast of the Island I have marveled at the combined forces of nature that draw  humans, seals, sea lions, sea birds and, of course, the main attraction – the millions of tiny silver fish that bring them all together in a flurry of activity.  For the humans, of course, the attraction is the fishery that produces thousands of tons of herring roe – a delicacy in Japan.  The creatures gather too, not just for the roe of course, but for a good feed that will sustain them through migration or mating season.            Herring sunset The sense of anticipation builds at the marinas and harbours late in February as fishboats await word of the opening from the Department of Fisheries.  For many, the  fishery is an opportunity to make some serious money in a short time frame so it is important to be in the right place at the right time. The length of the fishery is predicated upon Pacific herring stocks, which vary from year to year, and on demand. Some years the opening sees a veritable city of sea-going vessels on the water, engines thrumming and fishermen working 24/7 to get their share of the haul.  Other years, like the one immediately following the earthquake in Japan, there is almost no activity because there is no demand for the end product. 

Sea lions

It’s not just the activity on the water that attracts people – hundreds of sea lions, brant geese, seagulls and bald eagles make their presence known during the fishery too, taking advantage of easy prey

So every Spring, we wait and hope, keeping an eye on the waterfront, checking with friends and acquaintances up and down the coast. The sights and sounds are captivating enough that we have found ourselves driving considerable distances to take them in, for the herring are fickle and spawn in different areas each year. What may be a frantic scene of activity on the Qualicum Beach waterfront one year may another year see the same area entirely bereft of boats.  There are no guarantees, so watchfulness is essential.           

Spectators watch the herring fishery

The many footprints in the sand are testimony to the throngs that gather at the beaches to watch the action. There is an appeal for all ages.

If you are fortunate enough to be near a fishery opening, don’t be surprised to see hundreds of other people joining you along the waterfront, night or day.  Some folks even bundle up the kids, pack hot beverages and folding chairs, and head down to the beach in the dark to take in the magic and excitement of a spectacle that will, guaranteed, remain in the mind’s eye forever.  Before you head to the beach be sure to pack binoculars and cameras.  Dress warmly and wear warm, waterproof footwear.  

Seagulls at Qualicum Beach

Thousands of seagulls gather on the beaches to feed on the herring spawn, which is sometimes ankle deep

You may think you are just going to spend a few minutes watching but, guaranteed, you will be so enthralled with all of the activity and excitement, with the huge variety of wildlife that gets in on the act, and with the overall impact that this natural phenomenon has on you, that you will end up lingering.  If you aren’t totally entranced, I can only surmise you must be dead.


About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers.
In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.

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