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.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!