Number of Cherry Point herring declines

NEWS UPDATE Jul, 18, 2008
ENVIRONMENT

JOHN STARK / THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

UPDATED AT 4:51 P.M. — The struggling population of Cherry Point herring sagged by about a third this year, erasing much of the modest gains since a low point in 2000.

“We had a bit of a downturn here in 2008, which was kind of disappointing,” said Kurt Stick, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who conducts annual studies to determine how many herring spawn along Cherry Point and nearby shorelines.

Stick estimated the 2008 spawning population at 1,352 tons, down from 2,169 in 2007 and the lowest since 2002 when the estimate was 1,330 tons.

Herring are considered an important part of the marine environment. As larvae, they provide food for young salmon. Larger fish are food for adult salmon, seabirds, seals and other creatures.

Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant for Friends of the San Juans, has closely monitored the herring situation for years. He said the latest population decline should be a call for action.

“It clearly shows that we need to rededicate ourselves to the recovery of the state’s once-greatest herring stock,” Felleman said. “This continued decline is going to hinder the recovery of many other Puget Sound species, from salmon to sea birds to orcas. … Without forage fish, everything else in the Sound is compromised.”

The highest recorded population for the local herring stock was about 15,000 tons in 1973. For several years, Cherry Point herring populations were large enough to support a commercial fishery to harvest herring roe for the Japanese market. But that fishery was scaled back and scrapped in the early 1980s when biologists realized that the herring population was dropping sharply.

The population showed some signs of recovery in the early to mid-1990s before it began to plummet again, hitting an all-time low of 808 tons in 2000. Biologists have struggled to come up with an explanation in hopes of reversing the decline, but so far they are stumped.

NO CLEAR CAUSE FOR DECLINE

At this point there is no evidence linking the decline to the three big industries in the area: the BP and ConocoPhillips refineries, and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter.

Stick said the herring spend only a small portion of their life cycle on the spawning grounds in and around the industrial area, and the factors reducing their population could lie elsewhere.

Changes in water temperature and a growing population of hungry seals have been suggested as possible culprits, but research to test those theories has not been done.

Stick said it’s also possible that the high populations of the 1970s were abnormal, and there may be no way of growing the population back to those levels by human intervention.

Felleman said he thinks more research should be done to make sure that the industrial activity is not hurting the herring population.

“A lot of what we’re talking about is really just better understanding of the needs of those herring,” Felleman said. “You can only protect what you understand.”

Felleman also wants the Washington Department of Natural Resources to maintain the Cherry Point area as an aquatic reserve protected zone.

David Roberts, assistant region manager for DNR, said a management plan for the area is now being developed by a working group of government agencies, tribes, environmental groups and industries, and the draft plan will be available for public review in the fall.

With or without a designation as an “aquatic reserve,” Roberts said the plan is meant to protect and restore the marine environment in the area. Once the new plan is in place, Roberts hopes it will provide a basis for identifying and paying for scientific research on the herring population and its problems.

BP Cherry Point spokesman Mike Abendhoff said his company is open to helping to pay for research projects on herring issues.

Another BP spokesman, Bill Kidd, asserted that his company’s environmental stewardship has been good, and herring are still spawning near the refinery even though they are no longer found in areas farther from BP operations. He said the environmental impact of industrial uses has been less than what would have occurred if thousands of homes had been built in the area.

“The fact that we’re there is the reason this is in such good shape,” Kidd said.

Reach John Stark at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com


One Response to “Number of Cherry Point herring declines”

  1. […] Number of Cherry Point herring declines « Fred Felleman’s marine …Number of Cherry Point herring declines. NEWS UPDATE Jul, 18, 2008. ENVIRONMENT. JOHN STARK / THE BELLINGHAM HERALD. UPDATED AT 4: 51 P.M. … […]

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