Federal officials say they don't have the authority to extend Endangered Species Act protection to a dramatically shrinking stock of herring, an important food source for Puget Sound salmon, marine mammals and sea birds.
TACOMA, Wash. Federal officials say they don't have the authority to extend Endangered Species Act protection to a dramatically shrinking stock of herring, an important food source for Puget Sound salmon, marine mammals and sea birds.
Monday's announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service means federal officials are not obligated to safeguard Cherry Point herring, figure out why they are dying out or decide what needs to be done to conserve the stock of fish near Bellingham.
The determination came more than a year after a coalition of environmental advocates petitioned the federal government to add Cherry Point herring to the endangered species list.
Proponents said they were disappointed, but not surprised. A court challenge is likely, said Brent Plater, a San Francisco-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. Other petitioners included the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, People for Puget Sound and Sam Wright, an Olympia fish biologist.
"It's what I would have expected them (NOAA Fisheries) to do," said Wright, who blamed the decision on a Bush administration directive to limit application of the Endangered Species Act. Other advocates echoed his opinion.
Cherry Point herring make their home near the Canadian border. They once accounted for about a third of the state's herring population, but biologists say the stock is now so small that it could disappear.
But according to the Endangered Species Act, Cherry Point herring don't deserve federal protection, NOAA Fisheries officials said. Brian Gorman, the agency's spokesman, explained the rationale this way: Even if Cherry Point herring vanish, their absence won't harm the rest of the region's herring population.
Critics of the proposal endorsed the decision. They include managers of BP Northwest, one of two oil refineries with docks in the heart of the Cherry Point spawning grounds. BP Northwest spokesman Mike Abendhoff said his company argued against listing because it would be counterproductive.
"We don't dispute the declines of herring stocks in Puget Sound," he said, but insisted that the refineries already do their part to conserve the fish.
Authorities have banned the commercial harvest of Cherry Point herring and their eggs for several years.
Mike Sato, director of education and involvement for People for Puget Sound, said the refusal to protect Cherry Point herring compounds the problems of species recovery for both Puget Sound salmon and killer whales, which are also suffering population decline, and feed on herring.
Cherry Point herring make up just one of 40 herring stocks in Puget Sound and Georgia Basin.
The Cherry Point herring population dropped nearly 92 percent between 1994 and 2000, from 100 million herring to 8.08 million, assuming the average herring weighs 0.2 pounds. In 2003, the total increased to 16.11 million, far below the 150 million in 1973.
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News