It is a sunny Monday morning in early April and Ian Bruce, executive coordinator with the Peninsula Streams Society, is panning for fish eggs with North Saanich’s Tryon Beach just behind him.
A small plastic whirlpool stirs up the dark mix of sand and gravel picked up from the beach into a vortex and an opening in the middle of the pool allows the suspended surf smelt and Pacific sand lance eggs to fall into a pan below the pool. A small microscope then allows Bruce to count the eggs in his catch.
Without stressing the analogy too much, Tryon Beach is a rich vein of biological gold in ranking as perhaps the most productive nursery for surf smelt and Pacific sand lance eggs anywhere on Vancouver Island. “This beach is the hottest beach around,” said Bruce, his enthusiasm bubbling over. “It’s fabulous.”
Based on a sample taken in early March, anywhere between 10 million and 100 million fish eggs lie across the beach, encased in the moist sand-gravel mix, nearly invisible to the human eye, but crucial to animals near and far.
“They are a very important food fish for all the birds that came into the bird sanctuary,” said Bruce. They also become food for large fish like salmon and cod, which in turn become food for larger animals.
“So the eggs on the beach are one step away from a killer whale’s stomach,” he said. “It’s the foundation of the food web, where they convert plankton into fish flesh, which then moves up the chain.”
That chain, however, can only remain intact if the ocean (along with its kinetic energy) can continue to erode the backshore.
“As soon as you put that (beach) armouring up, it stops the ability of the ocean to nourish the beach by eroding the backshore,” he said.
This is what has happened elsewhere, said Bruce, pointing to the effects of seawalls in Roberts Bay. They deflect the energy of the ocean back on itself, which in turn flattens the beach, thereby robbing the fish of their breeding ground.
“These fish need a place to do their business and we have taken it away,” said Bruce. “I don’t want that happen here (at Tryon Beach).”
Accordingly, he wants to work with the property owner or the municipality to make sure the ocean can continue to claw away at the backshore in a way that maintains the beach as a productive breeding ground.
Bruce would also like to see the provincial government pass legislation like the one governing shorelines in Washington State. Bruce envisions legislation similar to the riparian area legislation governing development around streams, lakes, and wetlands, adding that it could bring some clarity to the jurisdictional jumble around beaches. The backshore is municipal responsibility, the beach provincial jurisdiction and the ocean and its animals subject to federal authorities.
Bruce’s gold, ahem, egg panning in early April was part of a twice-a-year survey of the beach that not only sampled the egg count on the beach but also measured its topography. He will be back in the winter to see if the tide has changed for or against the fish.
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