Search for Slhawt’ (Herring)
The Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw/Squamish Nation have lived in relationship with the Xay Temixw/Sacred Lands since time immemorial. Their origins as a people come from stories on the land where their ancestors formed and appeared. Slhawt’/herring not only support the local food web, but are also a culturally significant fish to the Skwxwú7mesh. For Indigenous people throughout the north Pacific, herring provide a nutritious food source as a fish that is cooked, smoked or processed for its eggs on hemlock boughs or seaweed. Ch’em’esh, as the eggs are called in the Skwxwú7mesh sníchim/language, are a treasured treat for those who still eat them today.
Traditionally, herring have represented the first flush of protein to return after a long winter. During this period, known here in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim as Tem Lhawt’/Time of the Herring, it is possible to witness the shores of Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound spring to life as the entire food chain, including birds, salmon, seals, whales, and humans, share in the celebration.
The Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Marine Stewardship Initiative (MSI) conducts annual surveys for herring, in partnership with Squamish Nation, Squamish Streamkeepers, and many others. Starting mid-February, the MSI team snorkels their way along the shores of the sound in wetsuits, documenting where and when the herring are spawning and monitoring the populations’ well-being. Countless volunteers have also contributed their time by helping with land-based shoreline surveys.
Expand the sections below for more information on the history of herring spawn surveys in Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound.
1966 - 2019
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted studies on herring spawn abundance and sites from 1966 to 2001. Since then, herring spawn presence has not been formally studied in Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound, apart from reporting done by Ocean Watch in 2017 / 2020, and community science surveys conducted by John Buchanan starting in 2010. DFO studies were done for stock assessment purposes, and, when compared with results from John Buchanan, they demonstrated an obvious gap in data along the northwest coast of Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound.
In the winter of 2019, Kiyowil Elder Bob Baker and several other Skwxwú7mesh Elders asked that the students of Aya7ayulh Chet/Cultural Journeys program (St’a7mes School) hatch a plan to bring the community back into relation with the herring of Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound.
For the first time in many generations, the community gathered to celebrate the return of the herring, known as Tem Slhawt’. The students hung cedar and hemlock bows in the intertidal zone off a beach near St’a7mes Village, and within a week the herring came to release their eggs, coating the bows in ch’em’esh. Watch a video about 2019 ch’em’esh here.
This same year, local community scientist John Buchanan began passing on local knowledge about herring spawns and how to search for their tiny translucent eggs.
In 2020, the students of Aya7ayulh Chet began receiving letters from ‘Harriet the Herring’.
This magnificent little fish teaches the youth about her fish family and the Salish Sea that they call home. As winter drew to a close, the students prepared bows to be placed in the water once again. The winds howled and the tides were large, and by the time the herring had come and gone, so had the hemlock bows planted by the students. It was a tough lesson to see and feel the strength of the ocean.
This was the first year that the Search for Slhawt’: Herring Spawn Survey team was formed. Guided by Fiona Beaty, the team included Matthew Van Oostdam, Jonny Williams, Nolan Rudkowsky, Myia Antone, Bridget John, and Kieran Brownie. They began snorkeling and searching for the eggs of herring and the habitats they use. This was the first year that John Buchanan formally passed on these responsibilities and the team began mapping and sharing the story of herring in Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound.
In 2021, the students of Aya7ayulh Chet prepared for another ch’em’esh harvest and the Searching for Slhawt’ team took to the water by boat and snorkel to understand how the herring were navigating Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound. John Buchanan provided a framework for the team to document Tem Slhawt’ over its entire duration, and this year they were putting it into practice.
While the surveys were underway, the students of Aya7ayulh Chet studied the moon and tides to predict the arrival of the herring in Skwxwú7mesh. Following the students’ recommendations, the community gathered on the beach to welcome the herring through ceremony. With their best energy, they dropped the bows for the third time, hoping the herring would bless their work. To everyone’s delight, the herring not only returned, but we even got to witness the spawn take place. Children and elders alike grinned from ear to ear, trying to make out the flashes of silver in the water.
In 2022, the MSI survey team grew to include Courtney Smaha and Vivian Joseph. The team expanded to cover a larger region of Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound, and documented herring spawns using a standardized protocol. Land-based surveys
were conducted by a group of 20 volunteers, based on visual inspection of the shoreline. This was the first year where a formal report was created to share the survey findings.
On March 4th, 2022 the Herring Ceremony at the St’a7mes Village waterfront took place. And on April 18th, a spawn event covered hemlock boughs that had been placed in the water by community members and children at St’a7mes School.
In 2023, the Searching for Slhawt’ team welcomed Matty Moore from the Squamish Nation Rights and Title Department and Addison Farr of Seadog Expeditions. A team of nearly 30 volunteers helped to conduct land-based surveys. Between all the volunteers, staff, and contractors, we spent a combined 724 hours searching for herring spawn in 2023.
The students from St’a7mes School marked the return of the herring with one of the biggest celebrations since our work began, and the survey team witnessed the power and life of Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound as they swam its shores alongside orcas, sea lions, anchovy and herring.
Read the full 2023 report here.
Searching for Slhawt’ Survey Objectives
- Survey, monitor, and document slhawt’/Pacific herring presence in Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound from late winter into spring, on an annual basis.
- Establish and maintain an adaptive program structure that is sustainable, shares capacity within the community, and contributes to the understanding that herring are our relations.
- Collect data that will be useful and credible for informing decision-making processes in the region.
Read about the 2021 Herring Survey results on this blog post.
Future herring spawn survey updates will be posted here! Check back in mid-February to keep up to date on the project. Thanks for your interest!
This was the first year that MSI produced an official report. Read it here:
Read the 2023 report here:
Herring survey team members
Our hands are raised in gratitude to all the volunteers, contractors, and staff who have contributed to the success of this program. This work would not be possible without the energy, time, and passion that you bring forth to caring for this land.
Thank you to our supporters
This work would not be possible without the generous support from our partners and contributions from our sponsors. We would like to extend our thanks to our 2024 supporters:
- Squamish Nation
- MakeWay Charitable Society
- Sitka Foundation
- David Suzuki Foundation
- Pacific Salmon Foundation
- Squamish Streamkeepers
- Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program
- Squamish Community Foundation
- Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative
- St’a7mes School of School District 48
- GFL Environmental Inc.
- Immenso Diving Equipment
- Dive Sports Canada
- Patagonia Vancouver
- Squamish Terminals
- District of Squamish and other local governments
- Squamish Yacht Club
- Squamish Harbour Authority
Please see the annual reports above for supporters from previous years.
Herring surveys in the news
July 18, 2023 | The Squamish Chief
Discover how citizen scientists and local organizations collaborate to protect herring populations through dedicated surveys and data collection…
May 11, 2023 | CBC News
On a cold, rainy day in April, the hunt begins. “When there’s herring, there’s hope,” Smaha told What On Earth host Laura Lynch…
Nov. 19, 2022 | The Narwhal
Herring all but disappeared from the shorelines around Sḵwx̱wú7mesh homelands in the past. Now volunteers are keeping careful tabs on the comeback efforts of a tiny fish with big cultural value…
November 8, 2022 |Hakai Magazine
In Howe Sound, British Columbia, a new generation of stewards is keeping careful tabs on the comeback efforts of a tiny fish with big cultural value…
Read more on our blog
The Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Search for Slhawt' program has been featured in the following publications, news articles, blog posts, and radio programs:What on Earth with Laura Lynch CBC Radio Dec. 24 & 26, 2023 The Search for Slhawt'/Herring Program was featured in...
Giving Tuesday is a global day of giving – and the Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound Marine Stewardship Initiative is participating! We are humbly asking for your support for our annual herring surveys.
The slhawt' / herring spawn survey team have been hard at work. Here's a short update from Matthew Van Oostdam for March 25th to April 8th, 2022. With regards to herring, the first ch'em'esh / herring spawn in Átl'ḵa7tsem of 2022 was documented on March 25th along the...