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The mysterious decline of Puget Sound herring

The Cherry Point herring stock, once the region’s largest, has plummeted. Can they survive a new shipping terminal?

Pacific herring might be the most popular dish in Puget Sound. The small silvery swimmers are called “forage fish” not because they’re rummaging for food, but because just about everything wants to eat them.

They fill the bellies of Puget Sound sea life, from giant sea lions to the iconic chinook salmon to tiny jellyfish, which means that they’re key players in the local marine ecosystem. That makes herring fundamentally important – and it makes their shrinking numbers alarming.

“They have been pushed way down and people think they are stable,” said Wayne Landis, director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Western Washington University. From year-to-year, there is some fluctuation in the approximately 20 herring stocks that spawn in Puget Sound, but that misses the big picture.

“They are going on a long-term trend downward,” Landis said.

Now there’s debate over whether a proposal to build a deep-water shipping terminal at Cherry Point could nudge what was once Washington’s largest herring stock into oblivion. 

Scientists are unsure what havoc the herrings’ disappearance could wreak. Some worry about the stress that fewer herring will cause chinook, which in turn are the main food for the celebrated local orcas. But there’s already evidence that the herrings’ decline can fray the local web of sea life. The first victim: An elegant black and white bird that eats the fish.

“There’s a strong connection to the Western grebe decline in the Bellingham area [and the waning Cherry Point herring]," said Joe Gaydos, chief scientist with the SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit focused on local marine health.

And what really worries those trying to save the herring is the mysterious nature of their decline. Cherry Point was once the spawning grounds for more than half of Puget Sound’s herring population. Then something strange happened.

In 1973, an estimated 15,000 tons of fish spawned on the Cherry Point eelgrass — just south of Washington’s Canadian border in the Strait of Georgia. Then the numbers began sliding, and kept sliding. The herring population dwindled more than 92 percent between the early 70s and 2012, according to population studies by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Herring were a popular commercial fishery dating back to the late 19th century, but state officials put the Cherry Point fish off limits temporarily in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. Today it is still off-limits, though fishing in south and central Puget Sound is still allowed.

However, even after the fishing stopped, the Cherry Point stock didn’t rebound. It made folks wonder: What is wrong with these fish?

The first of Cherry Point’s oil refineries was built in the early 1950s, followed by an aluminum smelter in 1966, and Washington’s largest oil refinery in 1971. In addition to their upland facilities, the plants have piers and release waste water into the strait.

The proximity of the beleaguered Cherry Point herring to this industrial activity has caused some people to blame industrial pollutants for their problems. After all, local herring deposit their sticky eggs on ribbony strands of eelgrass found in the sandy nearshore, and the deadly effect of petroleum pollutants on herring eggs is well documented, from Prince William Sound to San Francisco Bay.

The Cherry Point fish are notorious for their particularly sickly offspring, which have smaller amounts of yolk, lower hatching weights, shorter bodies, and a greater percentage of skeletal deformities compared to local stocks. In adult fish, a range of toxic chemicals can weaken their immune system and make them more vulnerable to disease, alter their metabolism and jumble key hormones.  

So is pollution the smoking gun?

Marine toxics gurus at WDFW and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center measured pollutants in herring caught in Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, including Cherry Point. The Puget Sound herring were deemed to be “significantly contaminated with PCBs, and to a lesser degree DDTs…” according to research published in 2008. The Strait of Georgia fish were polluted too, but at noticeably lower levels.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 27, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Here is one thing readers can do: The Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering moving forward with their Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP) to prohibit new fisheries targeting currently unmanaged forage fish (anchovies, squid, sardines) because of their role in sustaining a healthy ocean food web. Our salmon and steelhead depend upon these.
The council's public comment period closes March 31st. Please take a moment to tell the council that it's time to enact firm measures to sustain the Pacific marine ecosystem, starting by protecting the ocean food web. A call-to-action letter can be found at http://alerts.nativefishsociety.org/campaign/9-forage-fish
Thanks to those of you who do so—and spread the word.
Bob Margulis, Executive Director
Wild Steelhead Coalition

IMHO

Posted Wed, Mar 27, 10:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Lisa Stiffler's fine article on Puget Sound herring stocks can be encapsulated in one word: uncertainty. We just don't know for sure what has caused the decline of Cherry Point herring over the past four decades, despite efforts of marine scientists to determine why. But two things ARE fairly certain: the population has definitely plummeted, and putting a coal terminal at its primary spawning grounds is not going to help its recovery. And are the terminal proposers certain that the inevitable fugitive coal dust from its operations, shading of near-shore waters by the new docks, and the hundreds of Capesize bulkers coming and going annually are NOT going to have any adverse impacts on the herring?
I think the answer is obvious to anyone who looks deeply at the question.

mriordan

Posted Wed, Mar 27, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

There are many actions that we can all take to help herring and other marine species. One of those actions for homeowners to contribute to the solution is by installing rain gardens as part of the 12,000 Rain Gardens Campaign. Check out the workshops available to learn how to build one by visiting www.12000raingardens.org.

Blnce

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 4:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Looks like we need more studies. 40 years of data isn't enough, it may take a century of data to figure out what most 1st graders already know.

salmonjim

Posted Sat, Mar 30, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

While I have not followed closely the toxicology assessments for these fish, I am concerned by the physical degradations characterizing these fish. The growth and skeletal abnormailities, coupled with the plummeting populations, seem consistent with toxic metals toxicology.
Stormwater runoff is notorious for metals input (cooper, lead, zinc etc.)that have additive and synergistic effects with themselves and with the PCB contaminants identified in these fish. Since water acidification pressures have been known to be increasing (ocean upwelling acidification, atmospheric CO2 increase, watershed %red alder increases while red cedar is greatly decreased etc.) I'm suspecting a 'perfect storm' increasing water acidification, along with decreasing exchangeable calcium availability,associated with increasing dips in pH and water hardness. All of this habitat degradation allows increased mobilisation and toxicology from the metals pollution. Perhaps ALAD inhibition studies of the herring could clarify if the lead pollution is impairing health currently. This could then indicate the potential for the other metals to be potentially causative of increased metals toxicology during the CaCO3 dips. It is troubling if this potential has not been adequately explored before designing acres of metal grating as a solution to the shading problem. Massive amounts of galvanized steel, exposed to the mild corrosivity of rainwater pH does cause massive dissolution of the zinc. This could, rather than helping the ellgrass habitat, potentially greatly increase toxic metal exposure directly to the grass bed habitat below the grating. All of this is speculative, as I am not involved closely with these investigations, but the potentials of the sketched scenario seems plausable enough to need more careful investigation before designing mitigation that could have possible potential to itself be degradative to the habitat.
Ray Kinney
kennyr@casco.net

kinney

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

It was with trepidation that I spoke with Lisa about Cherry Point Herring having spent more time than I care to mention thinking about this issue. I ended up sharing more information then could be presented, but overall it was great to see the herring finally getting some attention. Chris Dunagan also just did a series on the Indicators the Partnership is using the track Puget Sound Recovery. When it rains it pours…

For context, it is important to note that most of the studies cited for Cherry Point are pretty old and SSA Marine has been recalcitrant in fulfilling the studies obligated by the settlement agreement. The fact that the one study they are doing on Vessel Traffic is being done under a new contractor is troubling. Furthermore some of the studies that were done had design flaws in their sampling and assumptions to flagrantly inIt was with trepidation that I spoke with Lisa about Cherry Point Herring having spent more time than I care to mention thinking about this issue. I ended up sharing more information then could be presented, but overall it was great to see the herring finally getting some attention. Chris Dunagan also just did a series on the Indicators the Partnership is using the track Puget Sound Recovery. When it rains it pours…

For context, it is important to note that most of the studies cited for Cherry Point are pretty old and SSA Marine has been recalcitrant in fulfilling the studies obligated by the settlement agreement. The fact that the one study they are doing on Vessel Traffic is being done under a new contractor is troubling. Furthermore some of the studies that were done had design flaws in their sampling and assumptions to direct attention away from the contributions of the industrial facilities to the herring decline.

Now for my point (talk about burying the lead).

1- While WDFW is correctly credited for “keeping the closest watch” over the State’s 20 herring stocks, the next paragraph notes that the most current published assessment is 2008.

2- No sooner did the PSP Leadership Council overrule WDFW’s request that jellyfish, not herring, be used as an Indicator Species that WDFW stopped sampling the spawning fish instead of making wild assumptions about the number of fish based on the amount of eggs distributed over a potentially wide area.

3- A critical reason Cherry Point herring gets attention was not included – their genetic uniqueness due to their spring spawning while all other stocks spawn in winter. It also appears that these late spawners are more tolerant of high temperatures and could therefore provide important adaptive value in warming seas.

4- I have been the only one to bring attention to the timing of the large spill at Cherry Point the year preceding the steep decline of the stock which could also help to explain their genetic damage. It is also worthy to note that the refinery was being built the previous two years and prior to that the Westshore coal terminal was built in the northern limits of the Cherry Point run. The location of that terminal results in excessive amounts of coal being blown into the water where the accumulated PAH’s would have significant impacts on these spring spawners due to UV enhanced toxicity.

5 – NMFS excuse for not listing the Cherry Point stock in response to the petition I wrote for CBD was the same they used to not list the Southern Resident orca – They’re distinct, they’re in decline, but there are other fish in the sea. Like the orca, even if another group of that species moves in to replace where they left it is not going to be the same. Other herring stocks will not be spring spawners which have evolved to appear when forage is available and numerous other predators such as surf scoters and Nooksack chinook have come to “expect.”

6- The fact that Cherry Point herring are not quite as polluted as other stocks does not mean that their level of pollution is not deleterious. Furthermore if they had tetragenic impacts from a majore spill during the spawning season, it should not matter what water the eggs are incubated in, they have the gift that keeps on giving.

I am glad to see Wayne Landis’ quotes but I am concerned how SSA has been using his research to support their claim that their project would be anything but the last straw that break’s the fishes back.

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