Herring returning to spawn at Cherry Point, but local population still in trouble

June 7, 2017

Cherry Point herring (Clupea pallasi) were once the largest and most prolific herring population in Washington state, spawning from Point Roberts to Bellingham Bay. But in the last three decades, their population has plummeted. The number of spawning fish has declined by more than 90 percent — and shows no signs of recovery. Read more at Sightline Institute.

The Cherry Point herring are incredibly important to the northern Salish Sea ecosystem. Many people in the environmental community are interested in the reasons for their decline, and what steps are needed to save the Cherry Point herring from extinction. So, when Mike McKay, a long-time fish biologist with the Lummi Nation Department of Natural Resources suggested a field trip to look for Cherry Point herring spawning, I jumped at the chance to come along.

Field trip attendees included members of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee and citizens interested in a variety of environmental causes, from oil transport to water quality and shoreline preservation.

We met Mike at a public access site near Ferndale. He explained that, in the past, the shoreline where we stood was an important cultural site to the Lummi Nation. Tribal fishers once depended on the herring when other income sources were not available, and the site was also used for reef net fishing for salmon. Both are things of the past.

Before we started our search for herring eggs, Mike gave us the basics. Before spawning, huge schools of herring congregate at Alden Bank, an offshore area located between Birch Point and Sucia Island. Beginning in late April, the fish leave Alden Bank for their spawning grounds along northern Whatcom County shoreline.

Next, a short talk about eelgrass. Most of us have seen this grassy looking stuff growing along the marine shoreline, but what did it have to do with herring? Eleanor Hines, the Lead Scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, had this to say about it:

Eelgrass is a nursery school for many Salish Sea species, providing safety and refuge. It also slows wave action, which is critical for newly spawned fish. Eelgrass is important for herring, who deposit their eggs on eelgrass beds from the shoreline to 40 feet offshore. Ongoing scientific studies show eelgrass beds provide a buffer area for creatures in acidic waters — especially shellfish larvae, which are extremely vulnerable to ocean acidification. Other studies show eelgrass can help decrease CO2 in the atmosphere.

View more photos of the field trip on Facebook

What’s causing the Cherry Point herring decline?

There are many theories about what has caused the steep decline of Cherry Point herring.

  • In 1972, 21,000 gallons of oil spilled from one of the refineries, and evidence suggests the herring population suffered long-term as a result.
  • Clouds of coal dust are frequently observed blowing from the Westshore Terminal in Delta, BC. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the coal dust may have had significant impacts on the spawners.
  • Over the last four decades, the natural shoreline used by herring for spawning has decreased by 80 percent due to development of our residences and cities.
  • There are large discharges of industrial process water and stormwater from the refineries, aluminum smelter, and nearby cities.
  • River flows could also be a factor: Prior to settlement, the Nooksack River flowed into Lummi Bay, on the south side of Cherry Point. At that time, there was a productive estuary where the Lummi River currently discharges. When the Nooksack River was diverted into Bellingham Bay, the estuary and water chemistry was drastically altered.

What was the impact of these factors on the herring? Studies show that the Cherry Point herring are smaller, have shorter life spans, spawn at a younger age, and suffer from infections, parasites, and skeletal abnormalities. As a result of the decline, the herring fishery was permanently closed in 1996.

Searching for Cherry Point herring eggs 

The information was dire, but we were ready to get started on our search for the tiny, translucent eggs. We searched on rocks, seaweed, and eelgrass. Some of us waded up to our waists, armed with hand lenses and cameras. We stooped, crawled, and just when we started to give up, Mike announced “I found eggs!”

It was strangely exciting, seeing tiny clumps of eggs on the eelgrass. We put them in a small container and passed it around with the hand lens. Within some of the eggs, we could see eyes and tails. The eggs were about two weeks old, and some of them even hatched while we were looking at them! We passed the container around, spellbound.

As the field trip came to a close, a few of us wandered the beach in small groups, thinking about the relationship between shoreline development, pollution, and the role the Cherry Point herring play in the food web of the Salish Sea. One of reasons this unique species is so important is that the tiny, newly spawned herring hatch at the same time small chinook fry are migrating through the area. The combination of timing, ocean chemistry, eelgrass and fish spawning were intertwined.

Get involved
If you’d like to get involved with our citizen science efforts, or support the work of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizens Advisory Committee, here’s how:

Contact Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper, at EleanorH@re-sources.org or 360-733-8307 ext. 209. Learn more about the North Sound Baykeeper work.

Become a citizen scientist and connect with a group of people passionate about protecting the North Puget Sound. Explore citizen science opportunities.

Learn more about our state Aquatic Reserve Program and support the work of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee. Learn more at aquaticreserves.org.