‘Herring curtains’ spawn a recovery
Under the waters of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, along docks in the seaside community of Madeira Park, a population is quietly expanding. Hand-sewn curtains, supplied by Rotarians, provide a crucial spawning environment for herring, which are a primary food source for salmon and marine mammals in the Salish Sea.
“This was formerly a thriving fishing community for both commercial and recreational fishers. Over the decades, the herring stocks have diminished substantially,” says Lorraine Wareham, publicity chair for the Rotary Club of Pender Harbour (Madeira Park), which is about a 40-minute ferry ride northwest of Vancouver.
The project builds on the work of the Squamish Streamkeepers Society, which in 2005 found “orange goop” covering a creosote-treated piling under the docks at Squamish Terminals, says Jonn Matsen, herring recovery coordinator for the conservation group. “We suspected that the goop was dead herring [eggs],” he says.
In the winter and early spring, schools of herring gather along the coast. Females search out spawning locations, preferring smooth surfaces such as eelgrass, kelp, or wood, but unfortunately often choose dock pilings coated with creosote, a chemical wood preservative.
The conservationists decided to wrap the pilings at the terminals with a nontoxic material that keeps the noxious creosote from leaching through and provides a surface on which the herring can lay eggs. The herring bounced back, and with them came increased sightings of humpback whales, dolphins, and orcas which had been rare for years.
After a Rotary club meeting where the Streamkeepers talked about their success, Pender Harbour Rotarians launched their own project in 2010. Rather than wrapping pilings, the club decided to hang curtains made of landscape fabric alongside docks. The fabric was provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the government department responsible for managing the country’s water resources, and local fishermen donated the floats and lead lines needed to keep the curtains hanging vertically in the water.
“In November 2010, I made a couple of test curtains with my wife’s sewing machine one weekend when she was away,” says club member Jon Paine.
The next month, the club made a dozen more curtains at a local art studio. Rotarians and other community members cut the landscape fabric, and Paine’s wife, Susan, sewed on the lead lines and floats. Local residents offered their docks.
The curtains go into the water in late February in anticipation of the spawn. (“The first year I was a little too enthusiastic and had some of our club members out in a torrential downpour to place curtains in the water on Christmas Eve,” Paine says.) The club monitors the curtains weekly to ensure that they hang properly and stay clean for the arrival of the herring. If algae accumulate, the curtains must be brushed off so the surface stays smooth.
The 4-foot-wide fabric is placed in the water in 20- and 40-foot sections, several hundred linear feet of curtains in all. The curtains stay in the water for six to eight weeks. After the eggs hatch, the curtains are pulled, cleaned, and stored for the next year.
“The creosote in the dock pilings killed the eggs, and we’ve had a declining amount of eelgrass in shallow waters and rocks where herring usually laid their eggs,” says club member Glen Bonderud. “We’re just trying to reverse Mother Nature a bit.”
Male herring fertilize the eggs with clouds of sperm, “turning the sea into a milky blue haze that can be spotted from the air,” Paine says. “A large herring spawn is a raucous affair with squawking seagulls, diving birds, seals, and other marine mammals in for a feast.”
The eggs start as tiny opaque spheres, about 1/16th of an inch in diameter, Paine says. Viable fertilized eggs will be clear and have a visible sign of life after about two weeks, and within three weeks the eggs are ready to hatch. Juvenile salmon feed on the newly hatched herring.
The number of herring and eggs observed by the Pender Harbour club varies annually, but in a high-return year, eggs are several layers deep, Paine says.
“We’ve had success at some places, and other places, nothing,” Bonderud says. “The herring just won’t listen to us.”
The Pender Harbour club’s 25 members represent about 1 percent of the population of year-round residents in the community, which is popular with retirees as well as tourists. The club has participated in other sea-related projects, including donating CA$10,000 toward a new marine research station.
The herring curtain project resonates all the way up the food chain in the Salish Sea. The Chinook salmon population there plunged by 60 percent between 1984 and 2010, leading to government efforts to rebuild it. The herring population decline has received less attention from the government, making local interventions such as the herring curtains crucial.
While the success of the herring project is difficult to quantify, “one of the main benefits has been public awareness of how essential the health of our marine environment is to all of us,” Paine says.
The project has caught on in other communities, including Egmont to the north and Sechelt to the southeast, as well as Victoria on Vancouver Island, Bonderud says.
“It’s been a topic of conversation for years,” he says. “This is a darn good project, and if we succeed just a little bit, it will help.”
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