Everything out of whack: Digby Neck fishermen say weather behind herring deaths

Published on December 30, 2016

Digby Neck fishermen Royce Elderkin and Jason Denton stopped by the Digby waterfront Dec. 30 to share their knowledge of St. Mary’s Bay with people concerned about the herring die off.

©JONATHAN RILEY

DIGBY, N.S. – Digby Neck fishermen say unusual weather and tides is the simple explanation for the dead herring people are seeing on the beaches of southwest Nova Scotia.

“This isn’t anything man is doing, this isn’t any illness or poisons or toxins in the environment,” says Royce Elderkin, a fisherman from Little River on Digby Neck. “There is simply a massive amount of herring in the bay and later than normal.”

DFO has been investigating the death of thousands and thousands of herring that started washing up on beaches in the Annapolis Basin and St. Mary’s Bay and at the mouth of the Tusket River in late November.

So far a battery of tests have found no bacterial or viral infections or any toxins or poisons.

Elderkin says he is no expert, but he has fished his whole life, like his father and grandfather before him.

“This is an unprecedented amount of herring, no one has ever seen anything like it and when we get those big winds, the herring are squished up against the shore and they suffocate in the shallow water, and when the tides go out, it leaves them up on the beach,” said Elderkin.

About two dozen people said prayers, sang beat and drums and exchanged information at a gathering in Digby Dec. 30 of people concerned about the herring die off in southwest Nova Scotia.

©JONATHAN RILEY

Jason Denton of Digby also fishes out of Little River.

He has been seeing huge schools of herring on the sounder since August.

“Normally you see these little schools, small pockets of fish it might take you a minute to steam through and they wouldn’t be very thick and they’d be scattered,” he said. “This year, since the beginning of August, the schools have been a lot larger, lasting for minutes and minutes, and they’ve been so thick it gives you a reading of a false bottom on the sounder – you’ll be going along in 13 fathom of water and all of a sudden it says 4 fathom.”

Denton figures the warm water this summer and fall kept the herring in St. Mary’s Bay longer than normal and in greater numbers.

And then when the big winds of fall swept in, the fish were trapped and crushed by the sheer number of fish.

“The bay is the warmest it has been in a long time, that kept the herring here eating plankton is my theory, and then the winds, these are biggest winds we’ve ever experienced for a fall – so you get these massive schools of herring close to shore, they run up on the beach, they use up all the oxygen and they smother out,” he said.

About two dozen people said prayers, sang beat and drums and exchanged information at a gathering in Digby Dec. 30 of people concerned about the herring die off in southwest Nova Scotia.

©JONATHAN RILEY

Elderkin says the herring are normally in deeper water farther out in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine at this time of year. He says the fish are more vulnerable to super chills or quick drops of temperature when they are in shallow water.

“Those super chills slam down on them and it stuns them and when they tide goes out, it leaves them on the beach,” he said.

Elderkin says the lobster and crabs seen on the beach in Plympton last week is a common occurrence when high winds throw crustaceans up on the shore.

“The lobster are staying in the upper bay because of the warm temperature too and when the big seas roll in it just throws them up on the beach, like it did with the starfish. How is a starfish supposed to get out of the way of storm surge?” says Elderkin.

About two dozen people said prayers, sang beat and drums and exchanged information at a gathering in Digby Dec. 30 of people concerned about the herring die off in southwest Nova Scotia.

©JONATHAN RILEY

Elderkin has seen other indications of the increased number of herring in the stomachs of sculpins – or grubbies as the Digby Neck fishermen call them.

“We use grubbies for bait and this year when we cut them open their stomachs are full of herring,” he said. “Solid full of them. I counted at least 12 herring six to seven inches long in a grubbie and we’ve never seen that before. Last year we saw a lot of haddock and before that it was crabs.”

Denton says this is simply a case of the weather being out of whack.

“These are the highest tides we’ve ever seen, the biggest winds we’ve ever seen in a while, the warmest temperatures we’ve seen in a while,” he said. “Everything is out of whack.”

jriley@digbycourier.ca

About two dozen people said prayers, sang beat and drums and exchanged information at a gathering in Digby Dec. 30 of people concerned about the herring die off in southwest Nova Scotia.

©JONATHAN RILEY