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Rare herring spawn transforms Esquimalt Harbour waters into aqua blue

SmallFisgard Lighthouse spectacle draws residents, spurs hope for more herring
A small herring spawn off Fort Rodd Hill turns the waters a tropical looking aqua colour. Herring spawned the same time in the same place two years ago, but skipped 2023. (Photo by Donna Gatzke)

A span of aqua blue water off Fort Rodd Hill marked one small herring spawn in Victoria, but local naturalists hold out hope there could be more.

“It’s exciting for us, pacific herring hasn’t been spawning much in Greater Victoria for many years and it’s a sign of recovery,” said Jacques Sirois, an Oak Bay resident, who also serves as co-warden of Trial Islands Ecological Reserve.

“It’s not a huge spectacular spawning event, it’s of interest to us because it’s in Greater Victoria. This is important to us and it happened, believe it or not at the same location on the same date, March 18 two years ago.”

The Pacific herring spawn is easily spotted as the small silver forage fish turn the waters turquoise with their milt. Once prolific in Greater Victoria waters, the spring spawn has been sporadic for decades.

Photographer Donna Gatzke got a heads up from her daughter, who with a degree in marine biology knew exactly what was happening. Gatzke made the trek over from Sooke the next day to document the event near Fisgard Lighthouse.

“It’s unique to the Fort Rodd area, who knows when it’ll be back again. Hopefully soon, but from history’s record it could be years again before it’s back,” she said. “It was quite a beautiful experience really and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.”

She was also in awe of the impact on the eagles, otters, sea lions and seals – all gathered for a feast.

“It is really beautiful to see all the creatures that it does support,” she said. “They’re all benefiting from the herring spawn. It’s pretty fascinating to see.”

Though small, the Esquimalt Harbour spawn is important in an area that has a history of huge returns, as are those returning to other areas of the Island, Sirois said. Waters off Ucluelet, Denman Island, Qualicum Beach and most recently Port McNeill all saw spawns so far this spring. There weren’t any locally last year, but a handful of events in 2022 also inspired hope in returning stocks. He hopes to see them in Royal Bay, as happened in 2022.

“We have a long way to go to feed our whales, to feed our salmon, to feed our birds, we need a lot of herring,” he said. “This is not over until it’s over. This is a spring event.”

He’s also buoyed by an army of herring spotted in the waters not far from his home on Thursday (March 21).

“We didn’t see any evidence of spawning, there was no turquoise water, but here in Oak Bay just a few hours ago we had herring feeding on krill on the surface,” Sirois said.

He was on the water with a group doing a four-hour bird survey of the area to potentially reassess and expand the existing important bird area in the Oak Bay archipelago. What drew the group to the area with the herring as a flock of about 500 short-billed gulls. Spectators also included roughly 45 bald eagles.

“I think they had their fill of herring, that’s what it looked like.”

READ ALSO: 2-foot long deep sea creature spotted off Victoria shores

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

I'm dedicated to serving the community of Oak Bay as a senior journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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