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Jack Knox: Herring only live in Craigflower Bridge memories

The herring — once so abundant that the Gorge appeared black with them — are largely gone.
Fishing at the Craigflower Bridge for herring in March 2016. BRUCE STOTESBURY, TIMES COLONIST

It used to get chaotic on the old, narrow Craigflower Bridge.

In the 1980s, the fishermen crowded the railing shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-reel from one shore to the other, packed together like, well, herring.

Rods bent and fish flashed silver in the sun after hitting the multi-hooked jigs three, four, five at a time. Curses filled the air as lines crossed and gear tangled. Gulls lurked and plunged, snatching herring from unattended buckets.

The traffic lanes were so close to the anglers that sometimes somebody would reach back to cast, only to snag the antenna of a passing car. Or a herring would fly off a hook and splat into a windshield, startling the driver into a lap full of spilled coffee.

As a boy, Jason Anderson loved it. Still does, even though the fishermen and the herring — once so abundant that the Gorge appeared black with them, all the way down to the rapids — are largely gone.

“It’s all childhood memories, right?” he says, standing on the walkway of the newer, more spacious Craigflower Bridge, where he’s one of just two lone souls with a herring jig in the water. His plastic bucket is empty. “I haven’t filled it in 15 years,” he says.

This isn’t a new story. The decline of the herring has been well-documented, with overfishing by the commercial roe herring fleet taking much of the blame.

There are, occasionally, hopeful signs. In February, the TC’s Darron Kloster wrote about Oak Bay residents being awakened by seals and sea lions whose pre-dawn barking sounded like the Hallelujah Chorus to conservationists. The appearance of the mammals, along with large numbers of gulls, was taken as a sign healthier herring numbers could be on the way.

Of course, “healthier” is a relative term. “I think it’s safe to say we only have about 10 per cent of the herring we used to have,” Kloster was told by Jacques Sirois of the Trial Islands Ecological Preserve.

This matters because herring, swimming near the bottom of the food chain, are key to the survival of everything above. They’re eaten by all manner of creatures — salmon, birds, groundfish, humpbacks — while other animals, notably chinook-eating orcas, depend on them indirectly. Herring might not be as sexy as salmon or whales, but they’re vital.

While Anderson is disappointed that a hoped-for March bump in herring numbers has so far failed to occur, there’s still time. Last March 25 saw a small but significant spawn — 170 tonnes — off Esquimalt Harbour, says Jim Shortreed, a volunteer with the Vic West-based World Fisheries Trust. “That was the first one in 25 years at that location.”

Shortreed is among those monitoring and attempting to encourage the return of herring to local waters.

That can be a frustrating process. A few years ago, Sirois described dozens of unrelated initiatives, from the Victoria sewage-treatment project, to reclamation of B.C. Hydro’s Rock Bay lands, to the ­$25-million cleanup of contaminated soil at Laurel Point and the “rewilding” of shorelines that had transformed the local ­environment in a positive way — but still the herring didn’t come.

Shortreed speaks in similar terms. Volunteers have done a great job of cleaning up the Gorge, hauling out old tires and stopping nasty stuff from leaking into the chuck, he says. Upstream from the bridge now lies a beautiful 66-hectare bed of eelgrass right where great masses of herring used to spawn. “It’s ready for them to come back, if they would just come back,” Shortreed says.

He is among those who, copying a technique successfully used in Vancouver’s False Creek, have been putting down nylon mesh panels in local waters — largely off Fisherman’s Wharf, by the Victoria International Marina and in front of the Causeway — hoping herring will spawn on them. “Unfortunately, in four years they have not spawned on our efforts,” he says.

Maybe the latest initiative will help. This week, members of the Songhees First Nation, incorporating a tried-and-true traditional practice, added hemlock boughs to the panels.

For now, though, the reality is bleak. Anderson, who first fished from the Craigflower Bridge at age three, is dismayed by the gap between what was and what is. The only place the herring remain abundant is in his cherished memories.

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