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A thrill for Washington ecologists: New herring populations

A new population of Pacific herring, a cornerstone of the marine food web that has been in serious decline, has been found in Elliott Bay. Is it a sign of better times?


Pacific herring

Pacific herring OpenCage

The Minnow, a NOAA research vessel, takes off across Elliott Bay. In less than five minutes it reaches its destination — the base of the cliffs that line Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood — and puts down anchor. Marine ecologists, who double as navigators and divers, prepare to enter the water. They’re looking for evidence of what may be a new development in Elliott Bay — spawning herring, the troubled but keystone forage fish.

“Do the zig-zag pattern. If you don’t hit it this time, come back out and go a little bit west,” Greg Williams, a NOAA fisheries biologist, tells a diver. The crew is looking for herring eggs near the shoreline of Magnolia Bluff. It’s the second year herring have been seen spawning in Elliott Bay and the first year of the study.

Many populations of Pacific herring have been in steep decline for the last thirty years, including what was once the largest population at Cherry Point near Bellingham. If the Elliott Bay population could establish itself permanently, it would be some of the best news in decades for marine ecologists.

Click on the audio player above or here to listen.

Multiple factors are at play in the decline: predation, disease and habitat loss — in particular the loss of eelgrass, which acts as a refuge and feeding ground for many marine species and is used by herring to lay their eggs. But there’s no convincing evidence that links the loss of eelgrass with the herring's decline, says Tessa Francis with the Puget Sound Institute. She’s one of the lead marine ecologists behind the study.

A collaboration between the EPA-backed Puget Sound Institute and NOAA, the study is sampling herring spawning habitat all over Puget Sound to determine whether herring are limited by their available spawning habitat. Herring eggs have been found on underwater vegetation of all types — eelgrass, red algae, flat brown kelp and an invasive species called sargassum.

“We don’t know how long it’s been in Puget Sound, but it appears that everywhere we go herring are laying eggs on this invasive species of algae and almost preferentially. We’ll visit a site where everything is covered in eggs except the eelgrass,” Francis explains. What's uncertain is whether the invasive species provides a herring spawning habitat that is equal to or able to compensate for the loss of habitat provided by native eelgrass.

Scientists still aren't sure if herring preferences indicate the best habitat for the eggs. Herring might prefer to spawn on sargassum, explains fisheries biologist Williams, "But the hatching rates might not be as good, or there might be some secondary relationship that ends up showing it’s not the most beneficial substrate for the eggs to be spawned on.”

The research team hopes to determine whether or not eggs laid on other types of seaweed see different success rates. Their plan: measure the density and survival of the Elliott Bay eggs in the lab and compare them with those collected the last time the team sampled here and at sites from Quilcene Bay to Port Orchard.

Back onboard, diver Ole Shelton, a fisheries biologist with NOAA, describes what he saw on the sandy bottom. Dungeness crabs and little crabs clung to the sides of kelp. Schools of tiny surf perch swam in the opposite direction. Mostly though, he collected herring embryos.

“If you look really close, you can see their eyeballs. They’re developing little fish eyes,” says Francis. She and the team put the eggs and vegetation in ziplock bags to take back to the lab. “These are probably 12 to 13 days old. They’re very close to hatching, so, if we had a microscope, we would be able to see a very well formed embryo in there that looks a lot like a fish.”

There's some excitement in the herring community to see whether these new herring are a new stock of spring spawning herring; that is, genetically distinct from other threatened herring populations. Dr. Lorenz Hauser, a fisheries geneticist at the University of Washington, will analyze the eggs the team collected to see whether they’re offshoots of Cherry Point herring, recolonized by another nearby population or genetically unique.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 30, 6:16 a.m. Inappropriate

What the...? What kind of headline is this for a straight news piece in a professional newspaper? You are still going for that "We're professional" angle, aren't you?

tvjames

Posted Thu, May 30, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Very nice story (!) with a horrible, horrible headline.

pl

Posted Thu, May 30, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

as a fish biologist, I'm excited to hear about this, and can't wait to go home and sleep on it.

Posted Thu, May 30, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Go herring go!

spock

Posted Fri, May 31, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

This is great news. Now if we can just keep the DNR from selling the rights to harvest the roe the salmon have a chance.

Djinn

Posted Sun, Jun 2, 12:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Great story.

I only wish NOAA and UW scientists as well as wdfw managers showed comparable interest/concern about the Cherry Point stock. We know these spring spawners are genetically unique along the west coast. Recent evidence suggests that they may be more temperature tolerant which could come in handy to the species as seas warm. Unfortunately, being a spring spawner also exposes them to more UV light than the winter spawners of the Sound and with their proximity to the state's two largest refineries and an aluminum plant their eggs and larvae subject to the impact of PAHs with UV enhanced toxicity.

Despite the former biomass of the Cherry Point stock and the lessons we have learned about oil and herring from the Exxon Valdez and Cosco Busan oil spills, I find it remarkable that no one is doing research on this stock despite the recovery of which being the primary subject of the DNR's Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. Not even SSA has lived up to their obligations having never completed the research they are legally required to prior to building north America's coal export terminal in the core are where the stock used to be fished.

It's all been about politics, not science. Before DNR granted BP a 30 year lease for a new dock the Corps has yet to require them to complete EIS for (despite court order and being in use since 2001)DNR had a broad review of the literature to determine what, if any impact another dock would have on the Cherry Point stock.

Funny thing, the study specifically excluded consideration of an oil spill, despite the fact that they all knew there was a major spill during the largest recorded spawn in 1972 - go figure, it's been down hill since then and one of the distinguishing feature of this stock is their anatomical anomalies.

Posted Sun, Jun 9, 3:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Herring off Seacrest Park, not spawning but still worth watching.

http://vimeo.com/55850168

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