The Precious Smelt and Mr. Brandt’s Cormorant for Xmas

At sunset on January 2nd, I watched the resident male Kingfisher dive from the pier across the bay, then fly with his catch toward me and land on the boat ramp below. It was a relatively large fish and the Kingfisher spent a considerable time bashing it adeptly on the planks, until its prey went into death throes. After jostling it to get it ready for a head-first entry, it lost it and since the tide was out, it landed on the exposed beach.

It proved to be a Surf Smelt, 18 cm in length (dinner plate size), and it was evident that it was a male from the milt that it exuded. I wondered whether smelt referred to its odour which was strong, and noted in the field guide that the family name Osmeridae was derived from Greek for odorous.

Its species name ‘pretiosus’ means precious. Whoever bestowed that name must have beheld it closely, for they fairly mesmerize with their varied hues and silver sides, and the fluorescent emerald back that distinguishes the females. Precious, but too big for a Kingfisher.

Not much is known about their abundance in B.C. waters. At one time, beginning in the mid nineteenth century, they were the subject of a substantial commercial fishery for domestic consumption. This fishery peaked before the first World War, with a maximum tonnage over 200 taken in 1904. It is now subject largely to a recreational fishery in Burrard Inlet, and the summer spawning on the Washington and Oregon coasts provides an important food source for native people. It’s not known whether the Salish Sea is comprised of more than one stock but the occurrence of both summer and winter spawning populations suggests that there are genetic differences.

Despite its abundance in coastal waters in winter, it is seldom noticed, and their spawning beaches are not well known, or targeted by recreational fisheries. These winter spawning sites tend to be situated in protected bays with a freshwater input. Recent beach sampling by students from the University of Victoria have found evidence of spawning within Shoal Harbour Sanctuary.

It’s probably no coincidence that a large flock of Brandt’s Cormorant (150 +) along with Red-breasted Mergansers (45) entered the mouth of Roberts Bay on December 23rd as the moon approached fullness. A large pack of Brandt’s again entered the bay on Christmas Day in pursuit of prey but were thwarted by a holiday kayaker. Unlike other cormorants, Brandt’s hunt in dense packs so it is difficult to count them. They seldom enter the sanctuary and when they do it marks a special occasion because their behavior and fishing technique are so different from the resident Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants. It takes a lot of forage fish to sustain a pack of hungry Brandt’s. After dispersing from their California-based breeding grounds, the species migrates north and its appearance and local abundance are dependent on the seasonal movements of schooling prey species like Herring, Sand Lance and the Surf Smelt.

Brandt’s Cormorants were first recorded nesting in B.C. in 1965 on and island off Long Beach. Their numbers peaked in 1970 at 150 pairs, and declined afterwards to none today. In winter, its centre of abundance is in the adjacent waters, including Sidney Channel Important Bird Area, reflecting its high productivity due to its oceanographic features, and aggregations of ‘forage fish’. Brandt’s Cormorants know where the action is, as do the Mergansers.

As we enter into this winter of a full blown El Nino, many species have drastically shifted their distributions, or starved, due to the oceanographic changes. Monitoring programs, such as the Coastal Waterbird Survey, can provide important insights into what is happening beneath the surface.

Kerry Finley,  January 5, 2016

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