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Sand shrimp ban may not last

Blain Reeves, an official from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, updates the Island County Marine Resources Committee on the termination of tideland leases around Whidbey, a popular site for ghost/sand shrimp harvesting.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Blain Reeves, an official from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, updates the Island County Marine Resources Committee on the termination of tideland leases around Whidbey, a popular site for ghost/sand shrimp harvesting.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Sand shrimp harvests around Whidbey and Saratoga Passage halted in April may someday resume.

That was the message presented by an official from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources at an Island County Marine Resources Committee on Tuesday. Blain Reeves, assistant division manager of science, shellfish and invasive species management, aquatics division, discussed the history of the state’s understanding and lack thereof about sand shrimp. He cautioned that the ban may not continue in perpetuity.

“It isn’t a forever stop,” he said.

Four months ago, the state revoked three rights of entry to a handful of state-owned tidelands around Saratoga Passage. Effectively, that ended the commercial harvest of sand shrimp, also called ghost shrimp, which are used as bait along the West Coast. Sand shrimp are an important food source for gray whales, and Orca Network co-founder Howard Garrett has previously stated that it may be the primary food for the massive marine mammals as they migrate through Washington.

The shrimp advisory committee, a group formed by Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, requested the harvesting halt. They submitted reports and statements about residents noticing fewer gray whales feeding around Whidbey Island in the same areas where the state had issued rights of entry.

The timing was largely coincidental. Reeves said the state office was in the process of reviewing why it should or should not allow certain uses, including the sand shrimp harvest.

“Shrimp is one of those things that’s fallen largely under the radar,” he said.

At the public meeting in Coupeville, a handful of people from the shrimp advisory committee attended to hear an update from the state. Susan Berta, co-founder of Orca Network, offered to supply Reeves’ office with studies she and others have conducted about sand shrimp counts and whale visits.

“What really got me was when we got the harvest data in the last seven or eight years …” she said.

Gray whales continue to visit Puget Sound annually, despite the commercial harvest that happened year-round. One of Langley’s major concerns was the loss of the whales feeding off the city’s shores in recent years, which many residents believed was directly related to the commercial harvesters.

Shrimp harvester Randy Linard, a Freeland resident, disagreed. He said it was and remains in his interest to leave enough ghost shrimp to repopulate for his next harvest at one of a handful of tracts he had access to that totaled 200 acres around Whidbey Island, from Penn Cove to the Clinton Ferry Terminal.

“It’s like a farm and it produced every year,” Linard said. “And the whales had plenty of food.”

“I’ve been harvesting shrimp for 25 years,” he added. “Has anybody mentioned the fact that the gray whales, their numbers have gone up every year since we’ve been harvesting?”

One of the few limitations was that only half of the sustainable yield could be harvested. The problem with that, said Reeves, was the state didn’t know the size of a sustainable sand shrimp population, and that the state’s “prevailing thought” was that if they could continue to be harvested without any major drop-off in numbers, then that must be OK.

“We really didn’t have an idea of how much biomass was being removed,” he said, adding that it is possible that the whales rotate their feeding grounds in a cyclical manner when in Puget Sound.

Now they know. According to a study conducted by another group, 50 tons of sand shrimp were harvested from the area in one year by the DNR-approved harvesters plus another 20 tons by the Tulalip Tribes.

Armed with more information and a directive by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, the state is looking at sand shrimp. Reeves said his department hired a scientist to review the crustacean to better understand its habitat, life cycle, and role in the environment.

“Until they know enough about it to know what the percentage is, they can’t allow an unknown percent to be taken,” said Fred Lundahl, a Langley merchant and shrimp committee member.

Issues related to the ambient problems of shrimp harvesting were also mentioned at the meeting. Reeves said he had heard complaints over the past five years that the boats operated at night and were too loud and used bright lights. That concern was echoed by Barbara Bennett, the Island County Beach Watchers coordinator.

“It was like having someone in your neighborhood with a leaf blower,” she said.

The decision to terminate the five-year rights of entry leases was one the state department stood by. Reeves said the harvest still did not have a significant public benefit, one of the agency’s guidelines for allowing access to its lands. He noted that the rights of entry cost less than $200 each, and that the total of money brought in by the state was less than $1,000.

A public benefit of having easily accessed bait, popular in freshwater for steelhead fishing, however, was less easily determined. Reeves said Goldmark has fielded complaints from all along the West Coast, from as far south as Southern California, regarding the loss of sand shrimp.

“I could have never forecasted the backlash the commissioner got,” he said.

By October, Reeves said the state hopes to have a document about the sand shrimp to help guide its decision-making process. Eventually, the state will track the harvest, identify sites for the shrimp and work with the tribes to execute a management plan.

Linard said he and the other commercial harvesters who were edged out just have to wait until the state reverses its decision.

 

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