In the mid-1970s while living in Richmond, Martin Clarke used to head to Spanish Banks four or five times a year with a net purchased from Army & Navy, wade into the water, and wait.
“I’d come home with, probably forty smelts, maybe eight inches long each,” says Clarke. “I’d grill them or crisp them up on a pan and eat the fish whole. This was a very popular thing to do for a lot of immigrants at the time, and when I’d go down to catch the smelt there would be lots of other people doing the same--mostly Chinese, Italians, or Portuguese.”
When he moved to Bowen, in 1976, catching smelt fell off his radar.
“Nobody did it here,” he says. “People were into catching salmon.”
Last Thursday, Clarke was reminded of his experience smelting, something he says he hasn’t thought about in a very long time, by a biologist named Ramona De Graaf. De Graaf came to Bowen to talk about the critical importance of beaches and coastal bluffs to the ocean ecosystem.
The surf smelts that Clarke used to catch off Spanish Banks are just one of the fish species whose continued survival depends on healthy shorelines.
These fish come up very high on the shores of pebbly beaches to spawn.
“The female fish will come up at high tide and when she feels all the little stones rubbing and rolling around on her belly, she’ll lay her eggs on the surface of the beach,” says De Graaf.
Afterwards, the male fish come along and fertilize the eggs. As the tide goes out and comes back in, the tiny embryos will get washed farther up on shore (into the upper intertidal zone), and deeper into the sand and gravel. Throughout their lifespan, the smelt will be prey for sea birds, salmon, and a variety of marine mammals.
Like the surf smelt, the Pacific sand lance (otherwise known as needlefish) spawn in the sand and gravel of the upper intertidal zone.
The surf smelt, the needlefish, herring, northern anchovy, and capelin are all considered forage fish, and are the cornerstone of the ocean food web in this part of the world.
“To understand this, you just have to cut open the stomach of a salmon,” says De Graaf. “In a Chinook, you’ll find a mix of herring (50 percent), sand lance (22 percent) and other foods. Clearly, the forage fish are critical to the Chinook’s survival.”
De Graaf says that healthy shorelines are also critical to the survival of young salmon. As newcomers to the ocean, they hug the shoreline and continue to feed on terrestrial insects that fall from overhanging trees and brush as they did when they were living in streams.
“As they mature, they start to eat more zooplankton, and start to look for their food in the eelgrass beds, but that doesn’t happen right away,” says De Graaf.
Chinook salmon are the preferred food for killer whales, and a passion for whales is what brought De Graaf to her current mission.
“Growing up in Duncan, I always felt like I had a connection to the ocean, and with that came whales,” she says.
Her career as a marine biologist took her to Massachusetts, where she studied humpbacks.
“We did a lot of studies on their behaviour, and this meant we spent a lot of time looking at what they were eating and how,” says De Graaf. “My boss said they were eating capelin, herring, and sand lance. I’d never heard of sand lance before, but then I realized these fish were everywhere. When I came back to Canada, back to the West Coast, I started looking them up but I could hardly find any information.”
De Graaf kept asking, and eventually encountered a scientist from Washington State named Dan Penttila, who she calls, “the King of Smelt.”
“He asked me what I knew about surf smelts and the Pacific sand lance, and then he showed me the historic spawning beaches in British Columbia. We travelled by boat up the coast from Blaine past White Rock to South Surrey and I said, What beaches? They’re all gone. That, it turns out, is why he brought me there.”
Not only had the beaches and spawning grounds along that coast been destroyed, but De Graaf discovered that there was no Canadian data on the spawning of these species.
“I was dumbfounded, and in anguish,” says De Graaf.
From there, De Graaf started working to fill in the major gaps in data about forage fish spawning and also started talking to people about the protection of shoreline habitats. As she did, she encountered many people who wanted to help, so she fostered a citizen science program to harness that energy.
The BC Shore Spawners Alliance, as she calls it, gives people the skills and the tools to take samples of shoreline sediment in order to figure out where sand lance and surf smelt are spawning. So far, De Graaf has taught people in more than thirty communities to do this. On the Friday morning following her talk on Bowen, she gave a demonstration of the process at Pebbly Beach on Mannion Bay. If people are interested in starting this program on Bowen, De Graaf says she will come back and offer a full day workshop on the process of sampling for fish embryos.
De Graaf has also started working with the Islands Trust Fund on to identify shorelines that have suitable components for forage fish spawning. She’ll be coming to Bowen some time this summer to conduct this study, which will be facilitated by the municipality.
Bowen Island’s chief bylaw officer, Bonnie Brokenshire, attended both De Graaf’s talk and her shoreline demonstration. Brokenshire says that with the information gathered through the forage fish mapping, the municipality can make better decisions about shoreline development.
“Once you’ve got things on the map, we start working on our bylaws to put that information to use,” says Brokenshire.
For De Graaf, getting information about spawning habitat in British Columbia is a critical step toward protecting forage fish and ensuring a future for whales in our waters. Making sure that people understand the importance of maintaining healthy shorelines and understanding that they can make positive improvements towards that end is the other critical step.
“We all want nice beaches to walk on, we all want to see whales, and we all want salmon on the barbeque,” says De Graaf. “So I try to engage people through the head, the heart, and the mind. Once engaged, I know that people will do the work that needs to be done. We can, help smelt.”
A few simple tips for healthy shorelines:
- Hardened shorelines (e.g., sea walls, rip-rap) degrade habitat and increase erosion. Expert help is available to take measures to “soften” shorelines with native shrubs and brushes, grasses, and beach logs.
- Resist the urge to “tidy up” organic debris (such as beach logs) as these materials provide a natural sea wall
- Landscape with low-maintenance native plants. Use a mulching mower
- Redirect rainwater into porous surfaces away from the shore
- Repair and maintain your septic system