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?