I can’t recall whether March came in like a lamb or a lion this year – but I certainly won’t forget the lions that arrived mid-month. California sea lions, that is. (More photos below.)
The reason they’re here is that a bumper run of spawning Pacific herring has arrived along our shores this year – creating a feast for Harbour seals, Bald eagles, masses of gulls and herds of sea lions, all chasing the little silvery, nutrient-rich fish.
I’ve lived on Gabriola Island for 30 years, and though I’ve seen herring spawn along our other beaches, I’ve never seen it before at Drumbeg Park – where last week, the water in the bay turned milky white with herring spawn, as you can see in this photo (that’s not simply sunlight on the water):
We watched as seals repeatedly drove herring up against the shore of the bay – so fast and furious was the chase that waves of leaping herring arced out of the water, close to our feet, trying to escape the predator’s jaws.
On the nearby point, hundreds of gulls cried out, managing to get in on the feast as the small fish were driven onshore. Inside the bay, Goldeneye ducks paddled about – attracted by the prospect of a hearty meal of herring eggs.
But the most boisterous show came from the dozens of California sea lions. Teams of the huge mammals (males weigh about 800 lbs) prowled Drumbeg’s shoreline, lunging after herring schools…
lunching on the fishy delights…
then lounging with their flippers aloft like sails, until the next spate of gorging.
Each time they rushed the frantic herring they churned up the water, and every few minutes one lion or another would let forth a deep, mighty bark. There was no shortage of action!
The strength of this year’s herring run and feeding frenzy suggest that despite how much is going wrong in the ocean today, our region’s marine ecosystem still has some vitality. That’s very welcome news – and a reminder of how important it is that we do all we can to cherish and protect every bit of beauty and ecological health that remain in our world.
About herring : Once they reach full maturity at about 3 years old, herring spawn each spring, depositing a dense mass of eggs onto eelgrass and other seaweed in the shallows and intertidal zone. Over the next 2 to 3 weeks, the eggs hatch into tiny larvae. Only about 1% of these will survive, to metamorphose into little fish – whose mortality rate is also high. It’s estimated that from 10,000 herring eggs, only 1 will survive to reach maturity and spawn like its parents did. This sobering fact is why, in late winter and spring, gardeners should avoid taking home any seaweed: every bit of it needs to be left on the beach, as it’s critical habitat for a new generation of herring – the little fish that plays a huge role in our marine ecosystem.
Final reminder: my solo show, “Afloat in the Salish Sea: Images of Gabriola”, ends April 2. It’s downstairs at the Gabriola Community Health Centre (691 Church St.), open 8:30 am to noon, Mon-Fri. this week, Mon-Thurs. next week (closed Good Friday).