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In 2005, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lobbied federal regulators to list the Cherry Point stock as distinct and threatened, needing protection under the Endangered Species Act. The feds turned them down. Not that the Cherry Point herring aren’t endangered, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held that they’re not all that special, not worthy of listing with other endangered creatures such as the Chinook salmon, for whom they’re prime steak.
Adult Pacific herring — Clupea pallasii — are supposed to live eight or 10 years and grow to 12 to 18 inches. In the past several years, however, the fish that make up the Cherry Point stock have grown smaller. They seem to consist largely of 2- and 3-year-olds, producing fewer eggs than adult fish are expected to. Ominously, some 60 percent of the eggs they do produce are abnormal, often becoming deformed fish.
In pondering who or what’s to blame, industrial waste is an easy target. There are three industrial plants at Cherry Point, which were attracted to its naturally deep docking area. All three have outfalls that carry industrial effluent into the strait. The companies operating there say they are scrupulously careful not to pollute, and state agencies seem to agree.
"Conventional wisdom would say, 'it's the industrial development, stupid,' " Stick told Crosscut. "But it's a lot more complicated than that."
Industries began settling on the Point in 1954, when General Petroleum built its Ferndale refinery (now owned by Conoco-Phillips). Alcoa’s Intalco Aluminum came in 1966 and the ARCO (now BP) oil refinery in 1971, all with piers and effluent discharges. But the Department of Fish and Wildlife does not blame the industries for losing the herring.
“The fish were thriving for many years after the shoreline went industrial,” Kurt Stick observes. “The most productive year we’ve measured, in 1978, happened with two refineries and an aluminum plant in operation.”
Some biologists suggest the problem has to do with ocean-warming cycles that encourage predators from southern waters to venture north. Or a herring virus that’s been identified here and there around the Sound. They raise the possibility that the herring — known to visit relatives for extended periods — simply moved to Canada.
Some observers see this as classic trouble-avoidance by the state agency. “If DFW acknowledged that the herring problem is human-caused, they’d have to do something about it,” says Fred Felleman, a fisheries consultant and outspoken advocate for the Cherry Point herring. “They don’t have the money or the appetite for it.”
Felleman recently presented a paper at an American Fisheries Society conference in Seattle, in which he argues that industrial pollutants including a 1972 oil spill — covered by the Bellingham Herald but not to be found in state records — contributed to the herring’s decline. He’s convinced that small amounts of industrial pollutants, accumulating drip by drip for half a century, are a major cause of the problem.
State agencies admit they don’t really know what’s in the waters off Cherry Point, and they don’t have the resources to find out. Some resource managers continue to hope that SSA Marine will pay for so-called “baseline” studies to provide the first solid information on pollution, disease, ocean currents, and other living conditions for sea creatures in the Cherry Point waters. SSA agreed in 1999 to do the studies in order to settle a challenge to its Whatcom County shoreline development permit, by a coalition of state agencies and private organizations. But the studies never happened.
SSA Vice President Bob Watters agrees that SSA has not done the work it promised, but says the company had its reasons. His explanation suggests that it’s the fault of the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency controlling the use of Washington tidelands.
DNR administers the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, 3,000 acres of saltwater set aside in 2000 for special management. For the first 10 years there was no document spelling out details of how the Aquatic Reserve would managed. Without those details, Watters contends, it would not have been economically prudent for SSA to do the studies it had agreed to.
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