Citizen science is helping restore herring populations in B.C.’s Howe Sound

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at efforts by citizen scientists to restore B.C.'s Howe Sound and how unseasonable heat in Alberta is fueling wildfires.

Also: Has U.S. gasoline use peaked?

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This week:

  • Citizen science is helping restore herring populations in B.C.'s Howe Sound
  • Has U.S. gasoline use hit its peak?
  • Early spring heat is fuel for western wildfires

Citizen science is helping restore herring populations in B.C.'s Howe Sound

A man in scuba gear sits on a boat, looking back at the camera.

On a cold, rainy day in April, the hunt begins.

Courtney Smaha, project director for the Átl'ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound Marine Stewardship Initiative, and four others climb aboard a boat to head into Howe Sound (Átl'ḵa7tsem in Squamish), north of Vancouver, on the lookout for herring.

Now in its fourth year, this citizen science project is tracking the herring (Slhawt' in) that return from the Pacific Ocean in February and begin spawning.

"When there's herring, there's hope," Smaha told What On Earth host Laura Lynch. "During the time of the herring, it's a signifier of spring. And it brings nutrients to this area and with that, it brings other marine mammals like … the orcas, and that's overall … a key indicator of ecological health."

The conservation group's work is meant not only to benefit people but the sea creatures and water here in the southernmost fjord in North America. Toxic waste from industry, such as the now-shuttered Brittania copper mine, polluted Howe Sound in the 20th century, killing off much of its marine life.

None of the participants on the boat has a formal science background, but they're paid by the Marine Stewardship Initiative to collect data about the number and conditions of herring spawn in the sound. Their work contributes to the data being analyzed by the MSI as part of a larger effort to restore and protect this aquatic environment.

Sitting on the boat, school teacher Matthew Van Oostdam peers ahead, watching a flock of seagulls circle above, a sign that herring are nearby. Cameras at the ready, Van Oostdam — who is part of the herring hunt when he's not in the classroom — has learned how to do this right.

"Take photos and videos of everything, even if you don't think it's important, because someday it will be. And look for the birds," he said. "Those are two things we have always followed and it has always helped guide our awareness."

Getting clear images will help track herring populations. So Jonathan Williams, a member of the Squamish First Nation, pulls on a wetsuit, grabs an underwater camera and dives in.

While Williams (photo above) is in the water, sea lions rush toward the scene. In an attempt to defend themselves, herring surface and cluster into a ball. It looks like the water is boiling.

The sea lions' feeding frenzy leaves Williams a bit flustered, but also exhilarated.

"They're just swimming under me," he said. "The sea lions, they're scaring me. I'm not used to that."

Williams has come to embrace the cultural role herring have played in the lives of the Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh.) for millennia, and is thrilled about the opportunity to learn more.

Four years ago, in an effort to revive lost cultural practices, Squamish elders suggested suspending hemlock branches into the water. Within days, the hemlock boughs were heavy with glistening herring eggs, which are traditional food of the Squamish.

Aside from establishing a baseline for herring populations and reviving Squamish cultural ties to the fish and ocean, this expedition serves another purpose, says Smaha.

"We get people out into the water and establish those connections, because people won't protect what they don't know," she said. "So, getting out into the waters and experiencing the rush of activity that comes with herring is part and parcel to why this work is so important."

Even though there are signs of a revival of the herring in Howe Sound, there are still challenges — the ocean is acidifying and warming as a result of climate change.

So far, there isn't enough information to say for certain that herring populations have recovered to the levels they were once at, but this initiative is raising awareness of the fish's importance to the larger ecosystem.

Following in the wake of the herring, other sea creatures are reappearing. That includes sea lions and orcas, but researchers are also seeing fish species like lingcod and anchovy.

To start that awareness even earlier, Van Oostdam has woven the story of the herring into his classroom teachings by creating a character called Harriet the Herring. "She writes the kids letters and tells them about the things that we see out on the sound," he said.

All this work, says Smaha, should help inform people both inside and outside government when decisions are made about future uses of the sound, such as a proposed liquid natural gas plant. Knowledge about spawning sites will inform the fight to protect the herring's habitat.

"The work that we do is not for us, it's for future generations," said Williams. "We want them to have the opportunity to be able to harvest herring roe as our ancestors did."

Laura Lynch

Reader feedback

In response to Adam Miller's story last week on plastic waste related to vapes, Joanne Hind wrote:

"Sooooo, once again, we the public are responsible for safe and environmentally friendly disposal of a product, this time vapes. Just why aren't the companies that make these responsible and held accountable???? I don't even smoke and this annoys me to no end."

Jose Gladwin:

"Re disposable e-cigarettes…. I have no idea how much they cost, but perhaps the seller could help out by giving discounts on a new one with the return of a used one. It's not like they take up much space. The seller returns them to the recycler who gives the seller some money or something to make it worth their effort … besides helping save the planet."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. This week: The job hunt overlapped with climate activism when a group of young people dropped off their cover letters at the office of Canada's jobs minister. We'll find out about the "youth climate corps" they're calling for. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

Watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here.

The Big Picture: Has U.S. gasoline use hit its peak?

Given its physical size and affection for driving, the U.S. has been a major consumer of gasoline — more than 9.83 million barrels a day in August 2019. But as the world undertakes a (slow) transition to non-fossil-fuel transportation, some observers have noticed a potentially significant trend in Americans' gasoline use.

Gasoline is the biggest use of crude oil. Looking at data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) about "motor gasoline supplied" — a decent approximation of consumption — it's clear that lockdowns in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic put a major dent in people's driving habits. And, of course, the gasoline supply chain.

As the chart below shows, gas use resumed its seasonal pattern (lowest in January, highest in the summer) in 2021, but the peak in June 2021 (9.36 barrels/day) was lower than the pre-pandemic peak in 2019. And the 2022 peak was lower than its 2021 equivalent.

While the EIA has projected strong continued gasoline consumption into 2025, the larger takeaway may well be that U.S. gasoline use has peaked.

A chart mapping the use of gasoline in the U.S. over the last few years.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Early spring heat is fuel for western wildfires

Billowing smoke from a wildfire in Alberta.

After a cooler-than-normal start to spring in much of Alberta, the heat turned up to kick off May. And a busy start to the wildfire season looks to continue this weekend, as another blocking pattern in our atmosphere will bring a stretch of dry and potentially record-breaking heat to the province.

Temperatures climbed into the mid-to-high 20s across Alberta on May 1, with both Edmonton and Calgary setting new temperature records.

A ridge in the upper levels of the atmosphere pushed this warmer-than-normal weather into Alberta and parts of the B.C. Interior.

"A big omega block has formed over Western Canada," said Terri Lang, meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. Named for the jet stream's likeness to the Greek letter omega (Ω), these blocking ridges lock weather in place, leading to extended periods of hot and dry conditions.

"Underneath a high-pressure system like this, the air sinks. And when air is forced to sink, it warms. So we're getting extra warmth."

Although omega blocks and early spring heat are not unprecedented, Lang said this extent of record-breaking heat does stand out.

"This is sort of a very rare event for it to be occurring this early in the season, and just a little bit of that weather whiplash, too."

In Alberta, spring wildfires are particularly dangerous, can spread rapidly and are often human-caused.

"May is the busiest [time] for Alberta," said Mike Flannigan, the research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University, in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"We call it the spring window after the snow goes and before vegetation greens up."

At this time of the year, there is an abundance of dead organic material that burns quickly and is one of the primary ingredients for fire to occur, Flannigan said.

Hot, dry and windy weather are prime ingredients for dangerous wildfires.

Though spring heat like this is rare, it may become more common as our climate continues to change. Flannigan said wildfire seasons in Canada are lengthening and becoming more severe.

"We're almost moving to fire years instead of fire seasons," he said. "That's the result, because we're getting warmer."

According to Flannigan, with climate change, we're also expecting more lightning, which means more lightning-caused fires in the summer. The vegetation is getting drier, too.

"The warmer it is, the more efficient the atmosphere is at sucking the moisture out of the vegetation."

Flannigan said that means that fires start and spread more easily.

"[That] leads to higher-intensity fires that are difficult-to-impossible to extinguish."

Christy Climenhaga

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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