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Big Coal meets Cherry Point's tiny herring

Concern for survival of a once-great herring stock has halted industrial schemes at Cherry Point before. Will it happen again, with the proposed coal-shipping terminal?

Pacific herring

Pacific herring OpenCage

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Courtesy of Gateway Pacific Terminal

Fishers of a certain age will tell you about going after north Puget Sound salmon with a short stop for bait in the waters off Cherry Point. With a vertical array of bright hooks, you could bring up a bucket of herring before your coffee got cold. And the herring bait would always attract a salmon somewhere between Cherry Point and the islands.

Those, as someone surely said, were the days. Since the late 1970s or early 1980s, something has gone wrong with the Cherry Point herring. Biologists don’t know what it is and disagree over what it might be. Whatever it is caused a 95 percent drop in the population since the late 1970s.

There’s a lot more at stake than a convenient bait shop for sport fishermen. Biologists call the Washington herring a keystone species; they give life to a wide range of sea creatures who crave herring every bit as much as your Uncle Sven in Ballard. Scientists believe herring make up two thirds of the diet of the federally protected Chinook salmon; the Chinook in turn provide two-thirds of the food supply for Puget Sound Orcas.

That's not to say that agencies ignore the herring. Biologists of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife have tracked the decline for many years, but they haven’t identified any provable cause that might shift public policy to protect what’s left of the Cherry Point stock.

An icy, windy morning in April finds biologist Kurt Stick and a colleague in an open boat, dragging a specially designed rake through the kelp and eel grass along the Cherry Point shoreline. The rake gathers vegetation coated with herring eggs. Weighing the eggs in a carefully measured area, Stick and his coworkers estimate what remains of a stock that once comprised half the herring in Washington waters and supported a multi-million dollar industry. (Japanese food buyers imported Cherry Point herring roe for sushi as recently as 1996.)

WDFW figures there were 15,000 tons of Cherry Point herring in 1973. Last year, there were 774 tons. Regulators shut down all harvesting of herring and their eggs in 1996, but the fish kept disappearing.

Cherry Point herring have an engaging political history. They have managed to be in the wrong place when industries want to develop the shoreline and tidelands. Presently they seem fated to mix it up with the biggest ships in the world, as SSA Marine’s Gateway Pacific Terminal moves toward approval.

The Seattle-based builder and operator of seaports would create the West Coast’s largest coal shipping port at Cherry Point, a dozen miles northwest of Bellingham, on the Strait of Georgia. The GPT would eventually ship 48 million metric tons of Wyoming and Montana coal to Asia every year, most of it to China. One customer — Peabody Coal — has contracted with SSA to ship 24 million tons per year, a partnership announced a day or two after SSA filed for state and federal approvals to build the project.

The ships that would haul coal from GPT are known as “capesize”; that is, they go around Cape Horn at the tip of South America because they can’t maneuver through the Panama Canal. Think three-and-a-half football fields in length, with a seven-story building below the waterline. What they’ll do to the herring, salmon, crab, and other aquatic creatures along the shore is unknown. A troika of Federal, state, and county agencies will pursue that question and give us their best guess during environmental impact studies that are still to be scheduled. About all that’s known for now is that the Cherry Point herring are swimming in the direction of gone.

They’re a peculiar strain. While other herring in Washington spawn in winter, those around Cherry Point, for reasons of their own, don’t get around to it until April or May. That procrastination has left them genetically separated; they don’t mix with other herring stock in Puget Sound or Canadian seas.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 28, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

"Conventional wisdom would say, 'it's the industrial development, stupid,'?" Stick told Crosscut. "But it's a lot more complicated than that."

We have become imprisoned by the sophistication of our willful ignorance. The herring thrived off Cherry Point for what? 10,000 years? 50,000? Millions? Who knows how long? Some 20 years after 3 heavy industrial outfalls started dumping chemicals into the Straits, the herring mostly disappeared and those that remain are smaller, going sterile and producing deformed progeny. But we don't know FOR SURE that accumulated chemical pollution is the cause because nobody has yet studied it.

And since we haven't scientifically studied the Cherry Point herring crash, well guess what? We can just simply ignore it and pretend it's something else so we can continue to trash the ecosystem.

(For the academically inclined, one notes in passing that this dismal outcome is fully consistent with Woofer's entropic social variation on Gell-Mann's Totalitarian Principle: "That which is not forbidden is mandatory.")

So exactly how long can a society that behaves this way expect to survive? Does anyone ever wonder who will study our demise after we are gone?

woofer

Posted Fri, Oct 28, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I just gave a presentation at the Salish Sea conference (not AFS as reported)on the way that the dogma that has pervaded the discussions of the Cherry Point herring decline is so poorly supported by the data. The proposed Gateway coal terminal would most likely be the dock that breaks the herrings' back. This stock should have been listed as endangered under the ESA based on it's genetic uniqueness, steep decline in numbers and important role it plays in the ecosystem being the latest spawning stock in the region. There was a poster at the Salish Sea conference by a NOAA scientist reaffirming the stocks' unique genetic qualities, but it was NOAA's policy shop that denied the petition I wrote for the Center For Biological Diversity (not State agencies as reported)after Western State's Petroleum Association's biostitute misrepresented the data that existed.

Posted Fri, Oct 28, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

If the past cannot teach the present and the father cannot teach the son, then history need not have bothered to go on, and the world has wasted a great deal of time. ~Russell Hoban

We might be close to this point.

jwatts

Posted Fri, Oct 28, 5:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Fred:
Would you please contact Whidbey Environmental Action Network at wean@whidbey.net. We're interested in pursuing ESA listing.

Steve E.

Posted Mon, Oct 31, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

SSA MARINE, the 800 pound Gorilla of Puget Sound, and backer of the likes
of Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, is part of a far bigger monkey business
http://www.carrix.com/

mikerol

Posted Tue, Nov 1, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Recently, archaeologists across the border in BC have been learning how crucial the herring have been not just to salmon, but to humans. For century upon century, native people harvested eggs and fish, yet genetically distinct populations existed in different locales. Data indicate that the "they moved somewhere else" explanation is false; development of commercial fisheries and modern pollutants are the events that coincide with disappearance of stocks at Cherry Point and elsewhere.

Science may not have accumulated sufficient data to refute all hypotheses other than industry, but science also generally prefers the simplest explanation over complex and mysterious theories in the interim.

Mojourner

Posted Tue, Nov 1, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Who's missing from this story?

The native people who managed the herring population for thousands of years, that's who. This is important not because I am a bleeding heart liberal, but because there are sovereign nations who depend on healthy fish populations, and who never signed a treaty saying that the US or Canada had the right to decimate these fish, nations which presumably should have a meaningful place at the table.

Mojourner

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