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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?

(Page 2 of 3)

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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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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