BELLINGHAM – A coalition of conservation organizations filed a petition today requesting federal protection for Cherry Point herring under the Endangered Species Act. Cherry Point herring are a distinct population of Pacific herring that spawn along the open shoreline north of Bellingham.
"Once our State's largest herring population, Cherry Point herring have plummeted by 90 percent over the last three decades and they are not recovering," said Dave Werntz, Science Director with Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "If we lose them, much of Puget Sound's wildlife that rely on them for sustenance – from chinook salmon to sea lions, porpoise and orcas – will face even greater hardship."
Cherry Point herring face numerous threats from industrial development along their spawning grounds. Already, two major oil refineries and an aluminum smelter near Cherry Point have directly impacted herring spawning grounds through dock construction and operation, outfall discharge, vessel traffic, and disease and foreign species introduced from ship ballast water. Accidental spills of oil and other poisons also pose a considerable threat to the Cherry Point herring.
"More than 70 spills have dumped tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil and poisoned water over the herring's spawning grounds since the Cherry Point refineries were built in 1973," said Fred Felleman, Northwest Director for Ocean Advocates, "Just like the oil spill near Everett last week, another major spill at Cherry Point is inevitable. One big oil spill during spawning season would be a disaster and could completely wipe out the remaining herring in this area."
Despite numerous state and federal policies intended to protect marine resources, Cherry Point herring are on a trajectory toward extinction. The State's recent "Aquatic Reserve" designation for the Cherry Point area not only allows industrial operations to continue unabated, but also allows new and potentially destructive construction of a huge Gateway Terminal development and Georgia Strait Crossing Pipeline.
Cherry Point herring are distinct from other Pacific herring in many respects. Their unique spawning location and timing have reproductively isolated Cherry Point herring from other Puget Sound herring, and recent studies indicate that Cherry Point herring are the most genetically divergent herring population in Washington. Unlike other herring that migrate out to sea, young Cherry Point herring move to freshwater influenced environments, like estuaries, to feast on the copepods that occur there.
Groups submitting the petition are Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Ocean Advocates, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, People For Puget Sound, Friends of the San Juans, and Sam Wright.