Wildlife

Documenting the herring run

Conservation photographer Kali Wexler marvels at the annual event in the coastal waters around Vancouver Island — and explains why it is so critical to the ecosystem

The annual spring herring spawn along the shores of Hornby Island is both a spectacle and a feast: the seas turn milky turquoise as the tens of thousands of males release their milt to fertilize the females’ eggs. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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For millennia, the annual spring herring spawn along the shores of Hornby Island has drawn seabirds and seals, porpoises, orcas and people. It’s both a spectacle and a feast: the seas turn milky turquoise as the tens of thousands of males release their milt to fertilize the females’ eggs, lapped by the waves and blanketing every square centimetre of rock and vegetation.

The return of the small but mighty forage fish is a true wildlife spectacle to witness, but it also raises ongoing concerns about how the herring are being managed. When the commercial roe herring fishery harvests herring during their spawn, their goal is catch the fish just prior to the females releasing their eggs. The scale of the fishery concerns conservationists because herring return year after year to spawn, so harvesting mature fish prevents them from spawning to create the next generation and also means they are not alive to spawn the next year. 

For thousands of years, herring have been an abundant food source for coastal First Nations from Alaska in the north, down through B.C. and to Washington State. In more recent decades, the Heiltsuk and other First Nations have documented the decline of the herring and advocated for a sustainable fishery that would allow herring stocks to rebuild. They believe Fisheries and Oceans Canada harvest quotas remain too high.

Conservation and wildlife photographer Kali Wexler has been documenting the return of the herring for more than five years, primarily from his home base of Hornby Island. As the 2024 annual spawn gets underway, he sat down with Canadian Geographic to talk about the wonder of this event — and the critical role herring play in the marine ecosystem.

Fishing vessels flock to harvest the female herring before they release their eggs. The roe is a delicacy but the remaining biomass of the fish is processed and used to feed fish in fish farms and for pet food. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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On the wonder of the herring run

For me, it means spring. The herring run is a massive influx of energy and colour — everything comes to life. As a kid, I was always very excited for this time. And now, as a professional photographer, I am lucky to be able to document it for myself, but also to donate imagery to conservation groups. I have also started offering photo tourism. To me, the more people that can come and share the beauty of it, the better. It’s a way of spreading awareness and education.

The arrival of the herring to their spawning areas along the coast has always been a time for feasting and celebration for humans after a long, hard winter. Seabirds also flock to the area to partake of the bounty. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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Thousands of eggs blanket the ocean vegetation — waves filled with milt wash across them and fertilize the eggs, which will hatch into larval fish (if they don't get eaten by predators first). (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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On what makes herring tick

One of the special things about the spring herring run is that no one knows the exact day or time it’s going to happen, though the general window is the first few weeks of March. It often seems to happen right after some really nasty weather. So it will be snowy and really windy, kind of stormy conditions. And then when the storm passes and some nice weather rolls in you often hear of a major spawn event. In terms of duration, it’s all over the map. The bigger spawn might last a few days or a week or so. But there are also smaller “spot spawns” that last a few hours or days.

As herring arrive by the tens of thousands to spill their milt, the ocean turns a milky turquoise. A critically important forage fish, herring have drastically declined in many places along the coast. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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On the weeks leading up to the spawn

Last year, we hung around the water for two weeks before the big spawn happened. There was so much wildlife! We had almost daily transient orca activity, which was awesome. They were there for the pinnipeds, which were also hanging out and waiting — sea lions, Steller and California, but also lots of seals. There were seabirds and shorebirds. There are bears and tons of eagles. So you realize the importance of the herring run is multifaceted — they’re integral to the food web, a keystone species.

Multitudes of bald eagles arrive in the lead up to the herring run, staying to feast on herring that get too close to the surface. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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Herring are a keystone species that is integral to the food web — they are eaten by everything from salmon to seabirds, whales to bears. Here, an otter grabs a snack. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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On the local economy

In a lot of small towns along the coast, families have relied on the herring fishery to support themselves for generations. So that’s tricky from a conservation standpoint. I think there’s a bit of a misconception that conservation groups are trying to put an end to the fishery. There have been calls for a moratorium but the idea is to allow the stocks to rebound and bounce back. We want there to be a sustainable fishery for years to come. No one wants stocks to collapse completely.

In a lot of small towns along the coast, families have relied on the herring fishery to support themselves for generations. But the stock is now threatened by many enemies, from overfishing to climate change. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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Herring management is a complicated issue, with many conservation groups calling for a temporary moratorium on commercial fishing operations to allow stocks the time to bounce back. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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On success stories

In some areas along the coast that haven’t seen the presence of a fishery for some time, we are starting to see the return of the herring, which is really promising. The west coast of Vancouver Island is a good example. Over the last two or three years there have been quite large herring spawns, which are beautiful to see. It’s a testament to the idea of a moratorium — if we get these little fighting fish a chance, they can come back in strong numbers.

Individual herring eggs are sticky, which allows them to adhere to kelp and other seaweed. People sometimes harvest the roe by placing tree branches in the water, then harvesting the roe-laden boughs. (Photo: Kali Wexler)
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A final word

The herring run is a natural phenomenon that you almost have to see in person to fully understand the gravity of it. It’s amazing to see the ocean so thick with them that you almost feel like you can walk on the water. It’s very special.

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