“Martha’s Message” – March, 2020

     Bearing witness to a murmuration – the spectacular phenomenon of countless birds soaring together as one, dipping and diving in perfect unison – is an awe-inspiring experience. Profoundly under-appreciated is the fact that such remarkable animation also mirrors both the ‘group-mind’ and shimmering beauty of schools of fish. Huge nets are about to be dropped into our coastal waters to haul up millions of herring, and yet the act of tossing a similar trap up into the sky to bring down a flock of birds would surely be condemned as abhorrent. At least in today’s world.

illustration by James Audobon

     At the time of first settler contact there were an estimated 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in North America. Tree limbs would break under the weight of perching flocks, so abundant in flight that they filled the sky for hours on end and even days, blotting out the sun. Once a summertime resident in parts of Canada, the last wild passenger pigeon in this country was recorded in 1902 in Ontario. The death of Martha, a passenger pigeon at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, on Sept. 1St, 1914 marked the official extinction of a species that may have once been the most numerous bird on earth. Concentrating in great numbers has been a successful survival strategy for many species, until humans came along with the capacity for mass slaughter. After the arrival of settlers on this continent, passenger pigeons were maligned as crop destroying pests and relentlessly exploited as cheap food. They were not only trapped en masse with nets, but clubbed, shot, torched (the gruesome list goes on). According to the Audubon Society, however, two technological developments set in motion the species’ ultimate annihilation over the course of just a few short decades: the expansion of the telegraph and the railroad. These enabled a commercial pigeon industry to boom, fuelled by professional sportsmen who could track and swiftly communicate the birds’ whereabouts. Together with amateurs these skilled hunters literally “out-flocked their quarry with brute force.”

              herring spawn off Denman Island, photo by Hal Shulz

     As I write, spotter planes flying over Lambert Channel are tracking the herring that have returned to these shores to reproduce over millennia. Mammoth sea lions roll through the surf, while hungry eagles and seabirds of all kinds continue to gather for the primordial spring feast that this entire ecosystem depends upon. Islanders may be lucky enough to spot orcas, even humpback whales. On a sunny day, once the herring have spawned, the milky water will appear turquoise blue. This spectacle is always magnificent to behold, but the arrival of fishing vessels determined to make a killing at the expense of so many other species is not a welcome sight. It is widely feared that the refusal of government authorities to meet demands for a closure on this herring roe fishery could result in a population collapse with devastating consequences (the majority of other historic runs on our coast have been so badly assaulted that they can no longer support commercial fisheries at all.) One common factor in serial fisheries disasters, wrote journalist Stephen Hume last year, “is that regulators were convinced harvests were sustainable—until they suddenly weren’t.” It is the opinion of Stanley Temple, a professor emeritus of conservation at the University of Wisconsin, that passenger pigeons might have even survived their commercial slaughter if hunters weren’t also disrupting their nesting grounds. The double whammy, as he describes it, was the demographic nightmare of overkill and impaired reproduction. “If you’re killing a species far faster than they can reproduce, the end is a mathematical certainty.”

                      herring roe on seaweed, photo by Fireweed

     According to renowned marine biologist and pioneering oceanographer Sylvia Earle, we have ample evidence that large-scale extraction of wildlife has very narrow limits. She no longer eats fish of any kind, and instead advocates for thinking of them first and foremost as wildlife. “I have come to understand the value of fish alive in the ocean”, she explains, “just as we’ve come to understand the value of birds alive to keep the planet functioning in our favour. Imagine a world without birds. Imagine a world without fish. The oxygen that replenishes every breath you take comes from an ocean that is filled with life. It has developed over hundreds of millions of years. It has taken only a few decades [for humans] to disrupt and break those connections. The children of today will be really cross with us if we fail to act on what we know now.”

Please visit Pacific Wild, Conservancy Hornby Island or the Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards on line to find out how you can get involved in helping protect west coast herring and our marine environment.


Green Goddess Dressing

Parsley is one of the first plants flourishing in west-coast gardens at this time of the year, and well worth incorporating into our daily fare. An incredibly versatile herb, it is rich in antioxidants, supports bone health, has anti-bacterial properties, contains cancer-fighting compounds and so much more! Parsley is particularly rich in vitamins A, C, and K. I allow it to self seed in the garden, so always have a plentiful supply. Of course the leaves can be either dried or used fresh in all manner of soups, salads, marinades and sauces. A great way to punch up the nutrients in your morning smoothie is to toss in a handful of fresh parsley. The following salad dressing is one of my favourites – delicious, and addictive!


1 Cup fresh parsley, packed (twist off the stems)

1/4 Cup nutritional yeast flakes

1/4 Cup water

1/4 Cup olive oil

2 T. tahini

2 T. apple cider vinegar

1 T. white vinegar

1 T. miso paste

1 T. tamari

1 T. lemon juice

1 tsp. maple syrup (or a bit more, to taste)

1 garlic clove, crushed


Place all of your ingredients in a high speed blender, and blend on high until smooth. Enjoy!

EVENT NOTICE: Join Denman Islander’s on March 8th, IWD for our next Climate Action Community Vegan Potluck! Full details HERE.

In memory of the late Hal Shulz         Denman Island herring spawn, photo by Hal Shulz



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