Scraping the bottom

Sam Wright says more endangered species time bombs are ticking in Puget Sound

Even as local governments, businesses, and greenies hash out billion-dollar schemes to cope with new endangered-species listings of Puget Sound salmon, another big Endangered Species Act bomb is ticking away out in the Sound. Last June, nearly unnoticed by the public and media, a petition to list what were only lately some of the Sound’s most abundant and commercially important fishes as “threatened” or “endangered” passed the first big hurdle. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it had found “substantial information” suggesting that a variety of causes—most notably overfishing—had driven seven familiar species into extinction’s docket.

These are not glamorous, globe-trotting, anadromous salmon, famously vulnerable to human effects because they need both fresh and salt water at various stages. We’re talking humble bottomfish—the rockfish, pollock, hake, and cod that are the stuff of fish-and-chips and surimi—and even humbler herring—bait, for chrissakes. These are regular marine species, living all their lives in salt water, and as such more indicative of the general health of the Sound than the salmon that pass through. Listing them wouldn’t have the same effects on logging, farming, damming, and development that salmon listings bode to. But it could restrict not only fishing but development along the inland sea and provide conservationists the legal muscle they’ve long craved to set aside substantial underwater reserves.

This bombshell petition comes not from some powerhouse environmental group but from a single retired fisheries biologist, Sam Wright of Olympia. Wright is a rare apostate, an expert insider turned outside agitator. As a former head of harvest management at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, he would seem to share blame for the parlous state so many fish species have fallen into. But Wright long chafed at the department’s slowness to react to plummeting fish counts. “He argued for tighter catch limits than they allowed,” recalls Ross Antipa, the Washington Senate Natural Resources Committee’s staff supervisor and a seasoned observer of this state’s long-running fish wars. “He’s not a hypocrite.”

In 1993, Wright was one of several DFW biologists who, on their own, put forth the historic petition to list Puget Sound chinook and chum. He then retired to Hawaii, then came back to spearhead the development of a pivotal wild salmonid policy under a new and more activist DFW director, Bern Shanks. Retired again, Wright still chafed. “The department’s just not doing its job,” he complains; despite meager catches and growing scientific concern, it continues to keep various rockfish fisheries open. “All those advisory groups [convened to oversee fish stocks] aren’t worth the powder it would take to blow them up.” No wonder the label “controversial” is still attached when Wright’s name comes up.

But is he on spot with his boat-rocking ESA petition? “Sam Wright is a good scientist,” says Antipa, “When he talks, scientists listen. He’s on the high ground on this one.” As indeed, NMFS’s scientists have, as they undertake an intensive review of Wright’s petition and all available data; their boss, the US Secretary of Commerce, is to decide on the listings by next February.

Wright actually petitioned to list 18 marine species as threatened or endangered in Puget Sound: Pacific herring, Pacific cod (“true cod” in the supermarkets), Pacific hake, walleye pollock, and 14 species of rockfish with such poetic names as “bocaccio” and “canary rockfish.” Of the rockfish, NMFS accepted only three—brown, copper, and quillback—for review, not because they’re any more endangered than the other 11 but because they’re more common and so there’s more data on them. It is an irony of the ESA process that species may escape protection because they’re too rare to have been studied. Out of sight, out of existence.

Even as accepted, Wright’s petition marks a big leap forward in federal protection of finny creatures. Garth Griffin, the NMFS biologist overseeing the review, says this is the first such consideration ever given marine fishes in the Northwest. Wright himself says it’s the first on the West Coast; he knows of only one ESA listing of a marine species, an Atlantic tuna.

Marine species didn’t get the attention anadromous and freshwater fishes have in part because they weren’t seen as comprising geographically and genetically distinct populations (like different rivers’ salmon runs). So what if cod are and herring collapse in overexploited Puget Sound? There’s lots more of them up and down the coast.

But Wright’s petition and a growing understanding of the Sound’s isolated, enclosed ecology may change that thinking. A number of recent recent genetic studies support his contention that in such a “highly subdivided estuarine system comprising a number of distinct basins,” even migratory species such as herring and cod have evolved into distinct populations. This is even more conspicuously the case with rockfish, the homebodies of the piscine world. They may live 80 years or longer rooted to small sections of underwater reefs (which are themselves scarce in the muddy South and Central Sound). Like other long-lived creatures, rockfish are slow to mature and much more fertile when fully grown. Fishing tends to lop off the big, fertile ones, hurting long-term viability more than short-term numbers.

Herring face different problems—and their decline threatens far wider impacts. They are the main local food for endangered chinook salmon, and also essential for seabirds, mammals, and other fish (not to mention Scandinavian pickled-herring fanciers). Wright notes that Puget Sound forms a classic “wasp-waisted” ecosystem, with many species on the bottom and top of the food chain and—holding the whole thing together at the narrow middle—the humble herring.

That middle is fraying badly. The state DFW itself reports that the annual mortality of Puget Sound herring has doubled since the 1970s. And the mass of herring returning to the state’s most important herring spawning grounds, at and around Cherry Point, has plummeted from an estimate 15 million tons in 1973 to just 1.3 million last year. Three of the four Cherry Point spawning areas had none at all.

Fishing has likely played a role in this collapse; Washington still allows taking herring for bait and harvesting their spawn (a delicacy in Japan) off kelp. It no longer permits taking herring for fish meal or roe—as British Columbia does with what conservationists predict will be disastrous consequences. But other factors appear to be more important: warming waters, pollution, predation, and habitat loss. The last two pose some nettlesome potential conflicts. Herring lay their eggs on marine plants, especially eelgrass, whose beds have been reduced by bulkheads, piers, pollution, siltation, and other effects of shoreside development. And Cherry Point, the state’s herring heartland, also happens to be its biggest oil port.

At Cherry Point, ARCO wants to build the second wing of a Y-shaped pier beside prime herring spawning grounds, and cargo shippers want to build a big new pier nearby. Both projects have received some of their necessary permits but must obtain tideland leases from the state Department of Natural Resources. Fearing that noise, waves, and shadows from docking ships may spook the spawning herring, DNR wants to limit traffic to ARCO’s pier. ARCO disputes such effects and complains that this would obviate the purpose of expansion, to move tankers in and out faster, and that such expansion is urgent now that those tankers must take the place of the ruptured Olympic pipeline. As a showdown approaches, listing the herring would up the stakes and perhaps tip the balance against the pier projects.

One herring nemesis that no one disputes is the soaring population of sea lions and harbor seals around the Sound. These hungry Herschels also figure in the declines of the other species. And they pose a potential collision of federal laws: Marine mammals are protected by federal law, but will protecting endangered fish require killing them? Not anytime soon, says Greg Bargmann, the state’s manager of marine fish programs; he notes that it took a decade of study and debate before authorities resolved to kill a few flagrant steelhead-chompers at the Ballard Locks (which they ultimately didn’t have to do). But when fishers and developers feel the pain from ESA listings, look for rising calls to share that pain with Herschel. Or rather with hundreds, maybe thousands, of Herschels.

Cod, pollock, and hake were all important local fisheries ’til they collapsed in the 1980s and ’90s, and stocks fell as much as (in the case of hake) 98 percent. The 1974 Boldt Decision, assigning half the salmon catch to local tribes, triggered a devastating rush after bottomfish, which weren’t covered by the decision. White fishermen newly shut out of salmon fishing switched to bottomfish, and state regulators were slow to catch up. Even as the world decried the pillaging of vast Atlantic cod stocks, this state balked at imposing tough limits on its cod and other marine fishes. Commercial fishermen weren’t the only buffalo hunters; hundreds of sports boats converged on the then-plentiful cod run at Agate Pass by Bainbridge Island. The state finally closed or restricted the fisheries, but the stocks haven’t come back.

In fairness, state regulators weren’t the only ones slow on the uptake. Politicians, media, environmentalists—everyone fixated on chinook and sockeye. “It’s all been salmon,” says the Natural Resources Committee’s Antipa. “Nobody’s paid attention to [marine fish]. This part of the ecosystem has just been overlooked.”

Fish and Wildlife’s Bargmann acknowledges the crisis, but tags another culprit: El Ni�the cyclical ocean warmings that have occurred with unusual frequency in the last two decades. Furthermore, because Puget Sound lies at the southern end of their range, local pollock, cod, and herring are especially vulnerable to such changes (and to global warming). And overfishing pushed them over the edge. “If we’d had winters like we had in the late ’70s—cold and wet—those catches might have been sustainable,” Bargmann says bravely.

Maybe, but we didn’t, and they weren’t, and now resource managers like him are looking down the barrels of up to seven new ESA listings. As usual, they grimace at all the process, paperwork, and waste that such listings can entail; the Endangered Species Act is a notoriously blunt instrument, and the feds’ efforts to apply it to salmon don’t inspire confidence. But for Sam Wright, “it’s the only tool left, the only law with any teeth”—and the only way to get the attention of a system that let abundant, keystone species get fished to near-oblivion. On that score, says Bargmann, Wright has already succeeded. His ESA pitch from left field is a wake-up call at just the right time: “Our whole philosophy has changed to being more conservative and not waiting until it’s clear that the stock’s seriously depleted before acting.”

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