Big Coal meets Cherry Point’s tiny herring

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Credit: 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.

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.

“DNR had declared the area part of an Aquatic Reserve but there was no management plan,” Watters told Crosscut. “So we didn’t know what the restrictions would be, or if it would even be economically desirable to build the project. No bank would lend on such a project if we didn’t know whether we’d ever get to do it.”

“Now that we have the management plan and have seen the language, we can do the studies.”

Resource specialists who have worried over the herring for years find it hard to aceept Watters’ explanation. They point out that the 1999 settlement contains nothing about the DNR’S management plan being completed, nor the project being economically desirable, nor banks being willing to lend. For whatever reasons, the studies remain undone and a dozen years of data, which might have helped solved the herring dilemma, were never gathered.

The company has applied for new federal and state permits to build the terminal. Whatcom County planning officials ruled that the company’s 1999 permit is no longer valid and it must apply for a new one.

Coming events may seem eerily familiar to anyone who was watching state politics 30 years ago. Cherry Point herring — and the creatures that feed on them and with them — created heavy political drama in the early 1980s. Industrial companies came bearing gifts in return for the right to develop at Cherry Point in ways that could have damaged the herring, salmon, crab and shorebirds that hang out there. State regulators, biologists and activist citizens opposed the projects and one by one, Gov. John Spellman turned them down:

  • 1975. The (6) Northern Tier Pipeline company began a seven-year campaign for approval to bring Alaskan crude oil ashore at Cherry Point, headed for the Midwest. Spellman blocked it in 1981, on grounds that it presented too great a risk of an oil disaster in the Sound.
  • 1982. Chicago Bridge and Iron Corporation wanted to build oil-drilling platforms at Cherry Point, for use in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The state legislature created a special law for the company, specifically removing the CBI property from the state’s fledgling shoreline protections. Spellman vetoed the bill, following a political conflict that gripped the state capitol for months.
  • 1983. Peter Kiewit, Inc. pushed a similar oil platform scheme; the state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife recommended against it, and Spellman again said no.

The very same piece of property and descendants of the same fish will be the center of conflict in the next few years, as scientific panels ponder SSA’s proposal. This time, however, any potential threat is more subtle. No one is trying to dredge a channel into the tidelands or build an artificial lagoon to be periodically drained into the sea, as CBI wanted to do. SSA is more politically savvy and not so brazenly self-confident as its predecessors. It carefully secured political, business, and organized labor support for a port, before revealing in February that 80 percent of what it ships will be coal.

The state is even more strapped for jobs and money than it was in the Spellman days. The herring have dwindled to a sliver of the abundance Gov. Spellman worried about. Salmon fishing is a fraction of the major business it was in the early 1980s. Conditions seem favorable for a shift in public policy that might look something like this: if we damage a resource badly enough, for so long that it barely exists, then we can shrug it off in exchange for jobs and revenue.

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