Forage fish aficionados are excited over an egg so tiny it’s barely discernible to the naked eye.
The fertilized egg was found in a small sediment sample from Haynes Beach in Oak Bay in late January and serves as a harbinger of a key element in the shoreline food chain.
The egg was found by forage fish volunteers through the Peninsula Streams Society’s BEACH (Beach Education and Conservation of Habitat) program.
Citizen scientists routinely take small samples of sediment from beaches across the Capital Regional District. They distill the samples down and under a microscope seek out the tiny eggs of forage fish. Specifically they’re looking for Pacific sand lance and surf smelt eggs.
The small schooling fish are the foundation of the food chain, said Carmen Pavlov, coordinator for the BEACH program.
The non-profit Peninsula Streams started forage fish surveys in 2018 and now boasts 50 volunteers on 14 teams that monitor about 80 beaches, with 35 regularly surveyed.
Citizen scientists collect the data and submit to the Strait of Georgia Data Centre – a collaborative program between the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. The data archive supports efforts such as conservation and emergency response.
After training, the volunteers are issued a kit with the required equipment. Since 2018 volunteers have provided more than 600 samples across the region, with 100 of them featuring eggs. None have found more than those at Tryon Beach in North Saanich. Peninsula Streams data shows it may be the most productive on Vancouver Island.
A surf smelt egg found in the intertidal zone of Haynes Park in late January has teams in the area excited.
They’re happy to know the feeder fish are present, Pavlov said. With proof of surf smelt spawn on the Oak Bay beach, the group plans to work to ensure the habitat is protected, or even improved. For example, a seawall protects Beach Drive from shoreline erosion, just to the south of Haynes Park and before Queens’ Park. It also causes currents that pack down the sediment, making that section of shoreline less hospitable for the small fish to spawn.
The health of forage fish populations in the area is also key to another project underway, to return salmon to Bowker Creek. Peninsula Streams worked with the Friends of Bowker Creek to plant 30,000 salmon eggs into the stream in January. In November 2024, eyes will be on the stream awaiting the return of adult salmon from the batch of eggs.
But well before that they’ll be at the ocean doorstep, looking for food.
“They want to eat and forage fish are what they eat,” Pavlov said.
Those looking to volunteer for the program can fill out a form online at peninsulastreams.ca.