Each Spring, vast schools of Pacific herring migrate from offshore waters to the waters close to shore. They come to these protected areas for one reason: To spawn.

At this time, the females’ eggs (roe) are at their peak maturity. The male herring release their sperm (milt) into the water to fertilize the released roe. This creates a stunning turquoise color in the ocean. The process happens over the course of a few days, moving locations as the herring travel. During this time, there is a veritable bonanza in terms of wildlife, commercial fishing and of course, photo opportunities!

The herring spawn brings a plethora of wildlife to the area to feast.

The challenge

I had never photographed the herring spawn before, so I made an effort this year to document it. It can be difficult to predict the exact location and time of the spawn as, ultimately, it’s up to Mother Nature. I kept my eyes on a few websites that track the spawn in anticipation of it arriving. It almost always occurs in March in the Georgia Strait, off of Vancouver Island, BC, (where I live).

The congregations of expectant wildlife are also a sure sign that spawn is about to happen. So, when early reports started coming in that the herring had moved inshore about 25 minutes away from my house, I made a beeline for what I hoped was a good viewing location. 

The view that greeted me when arriving on location.

Just in time

Arriving at the beach, I could immediately see the strip of turquoise water just offshore and knew I was in luck. Totally alone, I was the first to arrive at this location, seemingly just after the spawn started.

Seagulls lined the shore and filled the air in a cacophony of squawking and pooping. The obnoxious barking and snorting of the sea lions added to the scene as they gorged on a herring smorgasbord.

Stoked, I began snapping away, the teal water standing in stark contrast to the dark blue hues around it. After about an hour, word had obviously gotten out and a boat arrived, quickly setting to work fishing just in front of me. 

Seagulls enjoy their feast before the boats arrive.

The purpose

The herring fishery aims to catch herring when the roe are at their peak maturity and still inside the female fish. The roe is considered a delicacy in many places in the world and is sold internationally. Locally, herring are mostly used as bait for bigger fish. But as a species, they are a foundational component of the marine ecosystem, feeding whales, seals, seabirds and other fish, like salmon.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) determines who can fish, when, and what the quotas are. All of this is a hotly contested issue, as conservation groups have been calling for a closing of the local herring fishery due to declining populations in recent years. 

The first boat to arrive at the spawn location.

Excited to have a boat for added subject matter, I proceeded to document it working the waters not too far away from me. Eventually, I looked up and saw what looked like a scene out of a movie: About a hundred boats were on the horizon, all heading right to my location. Within half an hour there were boats in every direction and the commercial herring fishing was officially commenced.

Boats charging toward the spawn location.

I spent the next few hours taking in the scene as it unfolded in front of me. I felt pretty lucky to have timed my arrival so perfectly. Other onlookers started arriving at the beach to watch, and what had been a solo adventure only an hour before was now a frenzy of activity.

Onlookers enjoy the activity so close to shore.
I tried to use the sea gulls to change up my compositions as my shooting angle had to stay the same from shore. Here, they’re part of the foreground.
Here, I attempted to frame the fishing boat with the sea gulls as the were taking off.

Eventually, hunger got the best of me and after a few hours of shooting I decided to call it a day. Many of the boats had dropped anchor, preparing to work through the night until quotas were reached. I decided to head to bed early and return the next morning before sunrise, in hopes that they would still be there.

The scene as I left for the evening.

First light

Bleary eyed, I arrived at the beach the next morning well before dawn. Much to my delight, many of the boats had spent the night and were still working the waters. A line of thick foam covered the high tide line, remnants from the previous day’s activity in the water.

Predawn at the beach.
A layer of sea foam covers the high tide line.

I spent the morning enjoying the scene as it was slowly illuminated with early morning light. Boats were starting to leave the area, a sign that the spawn was moving on. Again, I was grateful for my own luck in timing my shooting. That being said, being prepared, knowledgeable and persistent also paid off.

First light on the fleet.

Instead of heading straight home, I drove a few minutes down the road to another location to see if there were some different angles I could work. I was walking down the beach when I noticed a sea lion drifting not too far offshore. I took a few photos of him relaxing after his breakfast feast while the fishing continued on behind him.

Heading home, I felt thankful to have witnessed such an amazing slice of Mother Nature. If the fishery is open next year, I will continue to document the spawn and build my photo library on the subject. And hey, spending a couple of days at the beach is never a bad thing — even if there was a large amount of sea gull poop involved!