Cherry Point herring still near record lows, renewing concerns about Gateway Pacific terminal

Sunday, Jul. 12, 2009

JOHN STARK – THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
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The Cherry Point herring population showed no increase during the 2009 spawning season, meaning that the population remains near record low levels.

Herring are an important food source for salmon and seabirds, and the weakened state of the Cherry Point population has renewed environmental concerns about a proposed new development in the area: the Gateway Pacific bulk cargo terminal.

SSA Marine, the global shipping services company based in Seattle, has permits in hand to do some core drilling off the Cherry Point shoreline this summer, as part of preliminary engineering work that would be a first step toward eventual pier construction.

Kurt Stick is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who conducts annual studies to estimate how many herring spawn along Cherry Point and nearby shorelines. For 2009, his estimate was 1,341 tons, a bit below the 2008 estimate of 1,352 tons.

The 2009 total is also significantly less than the 2,169 tons estimated for 2007, when the herring seemed to be enjoying a modest rebound after several years of sharp declines.

Stick said there are lots of theories but no scientific data to explain why the fish are struggling. And as of now, there is no money for research at his cash-strapped state agency.

“We’re scrambling to just keep our basic stock assessment going and estimate what is out there,” Stick said.

In the mid-1970s, the Cherry Point herring population was estimated at 15,000 tons, and for a few years the population of herring seemed robust enough to support a few jobs in the fishing and seafood processing industries. Spawning fish were netted for their eggs, which were exported to Japan. But state officials shut down the fishery in the early 1980s when it became evident that the fish were in trouble.

Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper with RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, acknowledged that there is no way of knowing what’s wrong with Cherry Point herring, but she thinks it is likely that human activity is a factor. She noted that the coastline where the herring spawn is home to the BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries, as well as the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, and all three have discharge permits allowing them to release small quantities of pollutants into the Strait of Georgia.

In the past, industry spokesmen have noted that the fish are still spawning around their docks but have abandoned other areas. They also contend that a subdivision of homes and streets in the area discharges more pollution than the industries do.

Steffensen said she would prefer to see laboratory studies done to demonstrate that industrial discharges are not hurting the herring. She would also prefer not to see any new industrial activity at Cherry Point, but she noted that Gateway Pacific’s developers have already made a legally binding deal with environmental groups and regulatory agencies that mostly clears the way for the project.

“The best deal for the herring is not to have another pier built, but that’s not likely,” Steffensen said. “We need the best deal for the herring that we can get.”

As of now, Steffensen said, Gateway Pacific developers are committed to take steps to minimize the impact of a new pier’s operations, and she and other environmental groups would oppose any effort to water down those protections for the sake of economic development.

Bob Watters, an SSA vice president, said the company expects to complete the geotechnical drilling work this summer, but there is no timeline yet for actual construction and operation of a new Cherry Point pier. The pier has been envisioned since 1990, according to information on the company’s Web site.

As recently as 2008, the Gateway Pacific pier was under consideration as a possible site for export of Canadian potash, but that idea apparently was dropped after potash firms made a deal with the port in Prince Rupert, B.C.

As of now, no potential cargo for a new Cherry Point pier has been identified, Watters said.

Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant who has tracked the Cherry Point herring situation for many years, said the extent of efforts to protect Cherry Point herring will demonstrate whether people are serious about restoring the environmental health of Washington state’s inland marine waters.

“If we don’t get serious about protecting these fish, the whole Puget Sound recovery process isn’t worth a dime,” Felleman said.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

~ by fredfelleman on July 12, 2009.

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