Schools of herring are filling a once-dead waterway

Schools of herring are filling a once-dead waterway

This article was originally featured on Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at

Jonny Williams squeezes into a soaped-up wetsuit near the base of British Columbia’s Tantalus Range, a series of 2,000-plus-meter peaks that give rise to the region’s moniker, Sea to Sky. The water he slips into feels like glass, a surprise gift in a glacier-etched valley that funnels high winds. As he kicks his fins along shoreline, the sun reflects off the seawater jets. He bobs back up a while later and yells, “I almost smoked mine head!” With plankton blooming, visibility in shallow water is an arm’s length ahead and rocks seem to appear out of nowhere.

It’s Tem Lhawt’ [tem thlout ], The time of the herring is in the heart Skwxwu7mesh, [skw–ho-mish] homelands. The small group of citizen scientists Williams, who are young citizens, fires up an outboard engine and zips an aluminium boat to various locations along the steep western wall. Someone suits up and dives in to search for signs of a herring population that Fisheries and Oceans Canada considers too remote for regular monitoring.

From above, Howe Sound is known as Atl’ka7tsem [at–kat-sum], among other names. It looks like an open crab claw and a river-fed arm. The District of Squamish is tucked into its arm. This old mill town has been transformed into a luxurious outdoor haven halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. It colonizes the name Skwxwu7mesh. The pinchers catch a cluster of islands where the Salish Sea meets the crab claw.

The spectacle of herringspawn, which is an adult fish returning to these shores to cover tens of thousand of eggs with a milky-turquoise cloud of seminal fluid called milt–is over within a matter of days. Some eggs will be fertilized if they are glommed onto plants such as rockweed. If the waves that wash over them are gentle and predators stay far away, larval fish may emerge. The clear, bubble-like eggs that Williams looks for are too small to have any impact on Atl’ka7tsem. But to Williams and the four other citizen scientists who make up the core herring search team, knowing where these eggs land and flourish enables them to put a finger to the pulse of a waterway that environmentalists once declared dead.

The ghosts of resource extraction surround you: two pulp mills that choked sound with logs, bleaching agents like chlorine dioxide, chemical plant that leaked mercury, underwater dump sites made from dredged sediment, and an oceanfront copper mine that was once one of the largest sources of toxic metals in North America’s waters.

Herring scientists can’t determine if these industries have an impact on fish health. However, locals believe that it was minimal. It’s difficult to imagine herring abandoning their eggs to these shallows by looking at the rusty chemical tanks along the shores.

Pacific herring is thriving in the northern Salish Sea where the Atl’ka7tsem Claw sits. However, many former spawning areas beyond Atl’ka7tsem have been abandoned in the area of water between Vancouver Island and Vancouver. Herring all but disappeared from the shorelines around Squamish in the mid-1970s, likely due to overfishing and the mess industrialists made of spawning sites.

Environmental regulations, such as limits on how pulp mills could dump bleaching agents into the ocean starting in the late 1980s–followed by the shutdown of some major operations–have coaxed herring back to some of their former shoreline nurseries in Atl’ka7tsem and boosted their chances of survival. Locals started keeping an eye on the fledgling herring in this area in the early 2010s. Over the years, environmental groups and Skwxwu7mesh Uxwumixw [Squamish Nation], have worked on additional conservation efforts in cooperation with local industry, such as ensuring that toxic pilings are wrapped with protective materials to prevent herring eggs from dying. As the cumulative effects of development and extractive activities once smothered these shoreline ecosystems, so too will the cumulative effect of many efforts at restoration hopefully preserve a precarious rebound of herring. In recent years, locals have witnessed additional signs that the ecosystem is rebounding–the return of dolphins, porpoises, humpbacks, and killer whales, after a nearly 100-year-long absence.

Herring continue to face far-reaching forces. The fjord is rapidly acidifying, deoxygenating and warming quickly. The return of the herring is not known by marine biologists. They don’t know if it will be a temporary one or a long-term one. It is easiest to track the eggs of the fish and their performance each spring. Williams and his fellow citizen scientists are responsible for this work. A contingent of volunteers monitors the spring-spawn by bushwhacking in waders the Squamish estuary. The overall initiative is urgent: While the largest beachfront mines and mills have closed, a new era in oceanfront development is emerging. Plans have been drawn for luxury apartments as well as a liquefied natural gases facility.

As they find spawning sites and collect supporting data, they send the information to biologists at Atl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Marine Stewardship Initiative. Scientists will be able to establish a baseline against which future changes can be compared by knowing where herring spawn and how many eggs they produce. Advocates can also benefit from observations about how new industrial activity affects herring at their preferred spawning locations.

The herring search team scans the sound for slhawt’ [th-lao–t] most nights and weekends. Williams and three other Skwxwu7mesh youth members are paid through MSI funds. However, their work is supported by community generosity. A local dive company donates their wetsuits. Local conservation groups and people like Neil Baker, a Skwxwu7mesh fisherman offer knowledge and supplies about local herring and the ecosystem. The Skwxwu7meshUxwumixw provides the boats that the team uses.

But Search to Slhawt ‘, is more than just the forage fish. The larger goal is to restore people’s connection with the sound. The spring journey of slhawt’ back to their spawning places marked the first feast for marine and human beings alike. It was the first meal after a long winter, which included seabirds, eagles, and porpoises. In late winter, communities held ceremonies to welcome slhawt’ home. Roe was collected and eaten fresh, dried, or smoke–sometimes with salmonberry shoots.

In recent history, colonial strategies aimed at severing Skwxwu7mesh’s relationship to their territory in order to extract wealth limited the ability of these first stewards to carry out their traditions and monitor and harvest along the shores. Salmon and other species also lost their slhawt’ status. The return of slhawt’ restores relationships between fish and other species, including humans who may encourage or hinder their survival.

In between shoreline snorkels, 24-year-old Williams and two other young Skwxwu7mesh members on the survey team learn to operate the vessel, identify flora and fauna, and set crab and prawn traps to harvest food for family and friends–experiences they might not otherwise have access to. As they work, some team members speak Skwxwu7mesh, reuniting words and the practices that gave birth to them. The search for “slhawt” feeds a new generation in Skwxwu7mesh Stewardship.

Matthew Van Oostdam is a former commercial fisherman and schoolteacher of Dutch and French descent who has spent six years under the guidance of Skwxwu7mesh elders and community members. His current role is land-based education coordinator for kindergarten to grade 10 students at St’a7mes School, where he bridges Skwxwu7mesh and settler ways of knowing. Williams’ mother Charlene Williams, is guiding him in adapting the community’s teachings to learning activities for younger students.

A typical school day sees Van Oostdam out with the children skinning river Otters, teaching knife skills and smoking salmon. Van Oostdam often reads Harriet’s letters aloud about her travels and the ecosystems she supports. Harriet’s itinerary is based on the Survey for Slhawt’s data. In February, she wrote a letter to her children letting them know that she was on her own.

Although I’m out with the survey team on a Skwxwu7mesh thunderbird-emblazoned vessel in early April, relatively late in a typical spawning season, Williams and the others have seen little sign of spawn. The unpredictable cycle of slhawt’ can be influenced by a symphony events. Van Oostdam has playedfully distributed missing posters throughout school.

The Search for Slhawt’ started as an elders request. Kiyo-wil Robert Baker and others wanted to see a traditional harvest from herring roe on the hemlock branches, led by youth and the wider community. Herring eggs are a staple food source for First Nations along Pacific coast. They are usually collected in clumps from racks made of kelp fronds and coniferous tree boughs placed in shallow water.

At the time Baker requested, Van Oostdam, his guide, and Charlene didn’t know much about slhawts’ or where they could be found. Charlene reached out and sought out Skwxwu7mesh elders who had firsthand knowledge. Van Oostdam called a couple local conservation organizations to ask if they knew anything about the foundational fish. John Buchanan, a long-serving citizen scientist who calls himself an “environmental cop”, has volunteered to monitor the spawning areas of local herring for more than a decade from his boat.

Over coffee, “he basically knowledge-bombed me with, like, 12 years of herring data,” recalls Van Oostdam. Van Oostdam used Buchanan’s maps showing shoreline spawning locations (blue lines for sites surveyed, red lines for sites withspawn), overlaid on a Google Earth Map of the sound. He then took a small boat and explored the glacially steepened west wall at Atl’ka7tsem to get to know the fish. Buchanan encouraged him to assume the herring surveys and Van Oostdam invited Jonny Wils to join him.

At the time, Williams was working as an Indigenous youth engagement coordinator for MSI. He was able to arrange Skwxwu7mesh Uxwumixw-owned boats and recruit the rest of the core survey team through family and friends.

That first spring of Search for Slhawt’, in 2019, students led a ceremony, just as elders had requested. They chose Nexen Beach because it was home to a chemical plant that once produced bleaching agents. After learning about the importance slhawt’ in the ecosystem and Skwxwu7mesh methods of harvesting roe, the children sang songs welcoming slhawt’. They made racks out of hemlock branches and tied them with rope to the intertidal zone. Buchanan was skeptical at the time. He believed that the chances of getting roe from Nexen Beach were low. The group returned to the site a week later and found the boughs heavily covered in eggs. Community members were able to taste herring roe, which was the first time they had ever heard of it. The kids described it as “salty popcorn “.

A developer has since filled this site with sand and dirt to make way for a 4.5-hectare oceanfront park, part of a multimillion-dollar development set to house 6,500 residents.

After a long day on the water, Williams gets back on the boat and puts on sweatpants with Tribal Journeys. This is the name of the festival where he paddled hundreds of kilometers in a canoe. Vivian Joseph, wearing a camo hoodie with round glasses that frame her soft brown eyes, cuts the engine while she expertly steers into an area ravaged by thousands of years worth of rushing water. The sound of planes above is drowned by the surge of creek water coming from deeper within this cathedral. The tide is still low and a band of curled rockweed, similar to pasta, marks the high-tide line. It is only centimeters above water. Van Oostdam gestures to the rockweed and asks, “See the spawn?” I squint, and lean closer.

Joseph, who is 30 years old, calmly noses the boat right up to the cliff so Van Oostdam can reach out and pull a piece of rockweed. Kieran Brownie, a local photographer who helps out with the trips, points out that you can see a few of these tiny eggs. Only a few of these eggs are becoming larvae, and the rest have already died. Van Oostdam speculates the rushing creek water might have prevented fertilization.

As we leave the alcove, Williams sees a good cliff from which to jump when the weather warms. However, he reconsiders and decides that it might be a bit too high. Van Oostdam, Williams, and others jumped from a nearby, smaller cliff to celebrate the end the survey season. Van Oostdam says that having fun is a big part of this project. Van Oostdam’s loyalty is to young people, and the ecosystems that they are related to. He believes laughter facilitates these connections.

The survey team, which is Joseph and Williams today, records the GPS coordinates for each spawning site they find. Van Oostdam measures water temperature (4.7 degrees Celsius) and takes note of weather conditions and how the larvae develop. He will compile the daily reports and share them with MSI biologists. There is also an email list and a lively group on Facebook where Skwxwu7mesh and herring enthusiasts can comment on posts.

The team’s three years of data, along with Buchanan’s from years previous, are now among several hundred open-source data sets hosted in a new interactive and interdisciplinary map of Atl’ka7tsem, put together by MSI, that reveals everything from Skwxwu7mesh place names to at-risk eelgrass beds to rare pockets of glass sponge reefs, which formed over thousands of years. These efforts contributed to the region’s designation as Canada’s 19th UNESCO biosphere region last year.

It’s Van Oostdam’s turn. We’re now near Swiyat. This spiritual spot is now occupied with relics from a pulp mill. Williams is seated on the stern, rubbing his hands together, as Joseph follows Van Oostdam’s boat. He says that the cold doesn’t bother him. He reminds me that Atl’ka7tsem was originally a water-based highway linking summer villages in the Salish Sea with winter villages. Elders talk about 50-year-old women canoeing the roughly 70-kilometer stretch to Vancouver and back in one day. “My people had to be tough

Williams works in regular hours for Ta na wa Yuus ta Stituyntsam Skwxwu7mesh Uxwumixw’s rights and title department. His name translates as “the ones who take charge of what was handed down” and he plans to get his scuba license. He wants to protect his homelands’ water and get paid for it. “If we don’t, ?”

who will?

Joseph agrees with Williams’s sentiment. She was a fish enumerator at Skwxwu7mesh Uxwumixw at the time of our outing. She walked the rivers to monitor fish death. She had never been on the ocean, except for occasional ferry trips. She’s now learning more about the connections between marine life and the eggs they track, such as killer whales or dolphins.

As the wind kicks up, hail is emitted from the clouds, so we slow down and return to the harbor. The team discusses who should get the ice cream pail with five large crabs and prawns that they gathered during their survey. Fisherman Neil Baker receives a few, as he provided the traps and bait.

A week later Van Oostdam will set off in a canoe to pull the bough from this years harvest location, Sta7mes. This is the oldest Skwxwu7mesh Village and one of many reserves in this area of the territory. A row of students sits on a dock railing to observe the action in the Facebook video. Van Oostdam holds up a hemlock stem laden in milky roe and asks, “You guys want a little bit?” The children scream in unison, “Yeah!” He collects a bucket of hemlock stems, one per student, and leaves the rest of the branches floating in the water. If the conditions are right, some eggs might hatch, mature and spawn. A new generation of stewards will be happy to welcome them home.

This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine, and is republished here with permission.

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