The plankton-eating herring have spawned, the eggs laid in their millions in March and April off Vancouver Island’s shores. Of thousands laid, one will survive to adulthood. No wonder each female must lay up to 40,000 at a time, emitting them (roe) into kelp and eelgrass to meet the male sperm (milt). A formidable array of predators await the juveniles: gulls, cormorants and other diving birds, salmon, humpbacks, seals, and of course humans.
First Nations fishers sell roe to Asian markets which were first developed in the 1870s. In the 1960’s the herring fishery was closed for four years due to overfishing, and some argue it’s time to close it again for the sake of the struggling salmon that rely on it. Salmon eat herring larvae, and orcas in turn depend on the salmon. Much of the starvation now experienced by our southern resident killer whales in the J, K, and L pods, comes down to the loss of herring to commercial interests, and the loss of their spawning grounds. The eelgrass beds off Oak Bay for instance have been reduced by shoreline development, boat anchorage and sediment build-up.
Everything in nature is connected to everything else in the food web. Under the Species At Risk Act, Canada is legally obligated to create a recovery plan for our local orcas, which have been designated a threatened species. Belatedly the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is considering protecting the herring fishery, building salmon stocks and setting aside feeding zones for orcas. Southern orcas eat mainly chinook salmon (unlike migrant orcas that eat other fish and mammals) but chinook (the mighty Tyee) are also targeted by sport, commercial and native fishers during the final months of their ocean phase before they enter the rivers they emerged from years earlier. Between May and October, saltwater anglers fish for chinook all along B.C.’s coast, where the salmon feed on baitfish such as herring and anchovy.
June is Orca Awareness Month in BC and Washington State, and two of the initiatives promoted by activists are the preservation of herring and salmon and the establishing of quiet boat-free feeding refuges for orcas — quiet because underwater boat noise is the other hazard that is killing them off. Shipping and sonar interfere with the echo-location with which orcas communicate and find prey.
Some experts feel it is already too late for southern resident killer whales, while others think 2018 is a last chance to save them. Let’s hope today’s youth won’t be the last generation to glimpse them off Oak Bay. This spring has been a good one for the herring at the base of the structure which supports their survival, and it would have been a good year to suspend the fishery so that renewed stocks could replenish the species down the chain. But did we make such wise ecological use of this banner year? Or did the human fishers descend on the herring with special relish? Take a guess.
In Oak Bay, Orca Month will be kicked off on June 2nd with the opening of a month-long Marine Art Show at Caffe Misto, 2865 Foul Bay Road. Cafe patrons are invited to view the art and hear more about Orca Month at 1 pm. Interested whale-lovers can also visit www.orcamonthbc.blogspot.ca.
Schooling herring pack themselves into tight balls as a defence, or are herded into balls by predators such as humpbacks, dolphins and sharks. There’s something stirring about watching the commotion around a herring ball, with gulls circling and shrieking excitedly while seals wait in the wings. It illustrates the interwoven relationships in the ocean and the constant pursuit of sustenance, with orcas situated precariously at the end of the chain.
We’re a seagoing, pleasure-boating people here on the Salish Sea, but there’d be a lot less pleasure in plying an ocean where we’d never see another orca.
Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes monthly about the various species making their home in Oak Bay.