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Cherry Point herring

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Cherry Point herring are a unique herring at risk of extinction because of loss to their habitat in the Straits of Georgia waters in northern Washington state.

Clupea pallasii

Protecting a native Puget Sound resource

Cherry Point herring. Photo: Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Populations of the Cherry Point herring, once the most abundant herring species in Washington state waters, have plummeted in the last 30 years, declining by 90 percent, despite several state and federal policies designed to “protect” marine resources. By all accounts, the Cherry Point herring is likely headed towards extinction unless it is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Scoping hearings on a proposed coal terminal proposal at Cherry Point are currently ongoing. Comments due Jan 21, 2013.
Cherry Point herring eggs on eelgrass. Kurt Stick, WDFW
Cherry Point herring eggs on eelgrass. Kurt Stick, WDFW

One of a kind

Cherry Point herring are a unique population of Pacific herring that spawn on the shoreline north of Bellingham, and a keystone in the food chain for many marine animals including Chinook salmon and orcas. Some two thirds of the diet of local Chinook salmon relies on these herring. (2012, Personal communication, Barry Wenger, retired, WA Dept of Ecology)

The herring's distinct spawning location within the Straits of Georgia in Puget Sound has reproductively isolated them from other Puget Sound herring populations, making Cherry Point herring the most genetically divergent species of herring in Washington. In contrast to herring that migrate out to sea, the Cherry Point herring travel inland to freshwater environments, like estuaries coming into Birch Bay State Park, to feed and spawn. This unusual behavior makes the Cherry Point herring susceptible to harm arising from shoreline development and pollution.

Also fascinating, Cherry Point herring are the only herring that spawn in fall; all other known herrings spawn in late winter and early spring. (2012, Personal communication, Barry Wenger, retired, WA Dept of Ecology)

Oil and water don’t mix–neither do coal and water

Cherry Point oil spill, 2001. WA DOE
Cherry Point oil spill, 2001. WA DOE

Two major oil refineries and an aluminum smelter near Cherry Point have already adversely affected herring spawning grounds. Dock construction and operation, outfall discharge, vessel traffic, and disease and foreign species introduction from ship ballast water are some of the hardships Cherry Point herring have had to endure thus far. Accidental spills of oil and other poisonous substances present a constant threat to this already stressed species. Over 70 oil spills have released tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the water since 1973. If accidents like these continue there is little hope that a vibrant herring population will survive.

A proposal to ship thousands of tons of coal from Montana to China through the port at Cherry Point could spell another major disaster for the herring.

A set-back for herring and habitat

Cherry Point oil sheen. WA DOE
Cherry Point oil sheen. WA DOE

Despite petitioning efforts by Conservation Northwest, in 2005 the National Marine Fisheries Service refused federal protection of the Cherry Point herring under the Endangered Species Act. This is a set-back for survival of the Cherry Point herring population north of Bellingham. The agency maintains that the Cherry Point herring are not “biologically significant” and therefore not worth protecting. Yet the loss would affect the Puget Sound wildlife that feed on the herring, including Chinook salmon, and the sea lions, porpoises, and orcas that eat salmon.

Conservation Northwest is continuing to advocate for protecting this herring and its habitat.

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