The word herring comes from a Latin term meaning “multitude.” The way things are going at Cherry Point, we may have to call them something else. What was once the greatest herring stock in Puget Sound has dwindled by about 90 percent in 30 years. No one knows why.
Baseline studies of the herring—inquiries essential to learning what’s likely to happen to them—were supposed to have begun in 1999. They have not.
It matters. Marine scientists call the herring a keystone species, key to the biological health of Puget Sound. They’re meat and potatoes to Chinook salmon, listed by the federal government as an endangered species. Chinook, in turn, is prime steak to Orca whales, seals, eagles and us.
Herring are also food for halibut, Pacific cod, lingcod, harbor seals, herons, Western grebes, common murres, rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, Orca whales, seals, sea lions, porpoises and surf scoters, the familiar black diving ducks with the red and white head (a.k.a. the skunk-head coot).
The missing studies were part of an agreement signed by SSA Marine, the intended builder of Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, in a state-monitored settlement with a coalition of state agencies and environmental groups. The coalition had challenged Whatcom County’s issuance of a shoreline development permit, for an early iteration of GPT as a grain and fertilizer port. The state Shoreline Hearings Board sent the two sides home to work out an agreement.
Eighteen months of difficult, often-heated negotiations followed. The final settlement was reviewed and upheld by the Shoreline Hearings Board. Thirteen years later, the GPT project has grown into a proposal for the continent’s largest coal export terminal, without the promised herring studies. The company says they’ll still happen.
“SSA Marine remains committed to implementing the settlement agreement,” Gary Smith said last week. He’s the Smith half of Smith and Stark Strategic Solutions of Seattle, and the amiable public relations voice of SSA Marine.
“The agreement calls for a two-year acoustical-trawl measurement of spawning herring. [Researchers use a sonic fish finder to determine the number and size of fish, and bring up netted fish at the same time to learn what species they’re seeing on the sonar.] Those would provide a baseline for measuring changes in the future.
“It should be gathered as close as possible to the actual construction time frame, and SSA Marine remains committed to doing that.”
That’s only one of the many pieces of saltwater research the company’s required to do, under terms of the settlement agreement. The complete list is pages long; the studies are not known by neat, short titles. A short, partial list would include:
SSA Vice President Bob Watters suggests the Dept. of Natural Resources is to blame for the studies not being done. DNR oversees the use of tidelands in Washington, and created an Aquatic Preserve in 2000 that included the Cherry Point spawning grounds. Watters contends that uncertainty about DNR’s plans caused SSA to hold off the studies it had agreed to do.
“DNR had declared the area part of an Aquatic Preserve but there was no management plan,” Watters said. “We didn’t know what the restrictions would be, or if it would even be economically desirable to build the project. No bank would lend on such a project if we didn’t know whether we’d ever get to do it.
“Now that we have the management plan and have seen the language, we can do the studies.”
Barry Wenger, a retired senior planner for the Department of Ecology, was one of the negotiators for the coalition of state agencies and environmental organizations. No excuse, he says.
“To begin with, SSA signed the agreement a year before the Aquatic Preserve was created. And there’s nothing in it that mentions financial feasibility or ability to get a loan. They agreed to do the studies. Then, year after year, they kept putting them off and trying to get rid of the studies they’d agreed to. That’s what happened.”
For whatever reason, nearly all the studies remain undone. Thirteen years of data that might have helped explain the herring enigma don’t exist.
With the permitting process underway for the coal export version of GPT (a county-state-federal team is currently accepting public comment on the scope of the project’s Environmental Impact Statement), the company continues to insist it will keep its 1999 promises.
The state agencies involved seem understandably reluctant to use legal suasion on a company with the money, lawyers and political clout of SSA Marine. It may be the largest seaport builder and operator in the world.
As one of the negotiators of the 1999 settlement puts it, “The agencies figure, why pick a fight with the big guys and lose, if you don’t have to?”
On an uncertain day in spring, triggered by a stimulus that scientists have yet to understand, large patches of the inshore waters at Cherry Point turn milky white. Thousands of male herring school above circling females and discharge white clouds of semen.
The semen, or milt, carries a chemical that sends the females into frenzy, dispersing thousands of eggs onto eelgrass, kelp, or marine algae, on rocks, even on underwater creosoted pilings where the eggs die within a few days. A single female may deposit 10,000 eggs without stopping. Two of the 10,000 will grow into adult fish.
Herring watchers say the patches of white water were a fairly common sight a few years ago, in late spring, in the shallows near Cherry Point. Now it requires searching and luck on just the right day. The Cherry Point herring were calculated at 15,000 biomass tons in 1973. By 2010, they were down to 775 tons.
It isn’t just the falling numbers that worry Kurt Stick, the biologist who calculates the rate of the herring collapse for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Cherry Point herring are, on average, an inch shorter than they were 30 years ago. Stick observes the average age is two to four years, as compared to the five-year-old average in the 1970s.
Then there’s the prevalence of deformed larvae. About 60 percent of the eggs produce fish with deformed heads or hearts. What’s causing the deformities?
“We don’t know.”
Part of SSA Marine’s path to permitting is to make the case that heavy industries already operating at Cherry Point—two oil refineries and an aluminum plant—are not to blame for the herring crash, the implication being that industry and herring can live side by side, gill by cargo ship. The company published a briefing paper on the herring problem and presented it to reporters on the day of the first EIS scoping meeting in Bellingham, Oct. 27.
The handout includes a graph representing the number of herring in the Cherry Point waters in 1920, and decade-by-decade through 2010. There are dramatic swings in the curve, demonstrating how widely the herring population varied over the years before industrial development. A note defines the pre-1970 curve as one derived from “historical estimates.”
Footnotes indicate the graph was developed in part from a 2010 presentation by WDFW’s Kurt Stick. We sent the paper to Stick for his comment.
“It’s misleading,” he said, “to suggest that hard numbers can be presented for the Cherry Point herring stock size prior to 1973.”
He pointed out that no one was systematically calculating herring numbers before 1973.
Gary Smith commented on Stick’s critique, “The main point, well established the world over, is this: herring populations tend to rise and fall over time. That’s exactly what the chart on local herring populations in our draft shows.”
Stick and his colleagues at WDFW know the dimensions of the 30-year crash but, like everyone else, they don’t know the cause. Without the legislative backing and funds to do some costly studies, WDFW is still guessing, after 26 years of watching the herring disappear.
The agency will not pin the blame on the aluminum plant and two oil refineries that have operated on Cherry Point since the early 1970s, all with piers, all with industrial outfalls that carry closely regulated effluent into the deep water.
In 2005, WDFW was concerned enough about human causes to petition the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the Cherry Point herring under the Endangered Species Act. The feds refused. Not that the herring aren’t imperiled—they are—but NMFS decided that Cherry Point herring—while they are a genetically distinct stock, are not distinct enough to be listed with other endangered creatures such as the Chinook salmon. And never mind that herring make up two-thirds of the threatened Chinook’s diet. There are still plenty of herring in the sea, the decision suggests, and some other herring stock will fill in as those at Cherry Point die off.
Maybe not. Most herring spawn in winter. The Cherry Point herring, for reasons of their own, wait until late spring. Countless thousands of predator birds and predator fish depend on the annual spring feast provided by that peculiar spawning for their own survival. The delayed spawning time makes it unlikely that Cherry Point herring will recruit winter spawners from other waters.
Among the interesting factors we know little or nothing about are the lingering effects of a major oil spill that occurred directly in the Cherry Point spawning area, 40 years ago. On June 4, 1972, someone left a valve open on an ARCO oil tanker and thousands of gallons of crude were in the water before it was closed. The Bellingham Herald front-paged the story, with photos:
“A potentially heavy loss of newly hatched herring may be occurring in the waters from Cherry Point to Semiahmoo Bay…”
“...most of the eggs were hatched last Saturday, the day before the tanker spill.”
The WDFW’s biologists were there to assess the damage, but there seems to have been no search for biological effects. Fred Felleman, an outspoken marine life consultant who took part in the settlement negotiations with SSA, researched the 1972 spill intensively. He’s persuaded that it was considerably larger than the 20,000 gallons reported. His search of refinery records turned up 57 reportable spills at Cherry Point between 1972 and 1999.
Felleman suggests that the spill, immediately after spawning, “whacked the genetic code” of the herring eggs, and that the deformities and early mortality of Cherry Point herring could result, generations later. He argues that cumulative effects of the large oil spill, the smaller ones that followed, along with the day by day, ton by ton, carefully monitored and thoroughly legal effluent from three industrial plants, have to be considered in the list of what’s killing the herring.
“If WDFW acknowledged the herring problem as human caused, they’d have to do something about it,” Felleman says. “They don’t have the appetite for it.”
When the current phase of the GPT environmental impact study is finished and the scoping team members of Whatcom County, Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have decided what should be studied, it’s a good bet that the Cherry Point herring will be on the list. The EIS team can recommend that the state require new studies before the terminal can be permitted. But, Wenger and others insist, the EIS decision makers will know far less about the imperiled herring than they would have if the base line studies been completed years ago.
“Even the simplest data that might have been initiated in 1999, such as water temperature, salinity, oxygen, turbidity, and so forth, we still don’t have,” Wenger says. “And we don’t know what’s happened in the past ten years. What of the five herring viruses that we have now in Puget Sound and didn’t have at the peak of herring numbers 30 years ago? What if those have been coming into our area in the ballast water of foreign ships? We don’t know.”
Bob Everett, North Sound Regional Director for WDFW, does not share Wenger’s impatience at the absence of the required studies. They’ll be completed sooner or later he says, or the terminal won’t be built.
“SSA agreed to the studies, and those are part of what goes into the Whatcom County Shoreline Development Permit,” Everett said. “If they don’t do the studies, they don’t get the project. The longer they go without performing the studies, the longer they have to wait for the permit before they can begin construction.”
“The only way they could get out of doing the studies is to apply for a new permit and begin the process all over again.”
At some point in the long road to approving GPT, decision makers will have to ponder the Cherry Point herring’s overall importance and their chances of survival. What if they’re already below the level of possible recovery and repopulation? Some scientists set the survival threshold at 3200 to 3500 biomass tons. The Cherry Point herring numbers fell to one quarter of that level, two years ago. At what point can they be said not to exist?
Sources within the state agencies say those questions have circulated informally but not publicly. If the herring are too far gone to be an impediment to permitting GPT, that would mark a shift in public policy that no one in authority seems eager to address.
It would mean we (the collective, public we) have spent 20-some years watching a valuable and abundant resource fail beyond recovery, without bothering to find out why. Then, relieved of any hope of protecting the herring, we can get on with the good -paying jobs and the profit, and never mind the lost multitude.
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