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Residents worried about impact of shrimp harvesting on whales

Laura Valente looks out at Saratoga Passage from her deck at Whidbey Shores. She fears that ghost-shrimp harvesters will keep the gray whales away.  - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Laura Valente looks out at Saratoga Passage from her deck at Whidbey Shores. She fears that ghost-shrimp harvesters will keep the gray whales away.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

The whales are coming, but their food is leaving in buckets.

Residents along Saratoga Passage are concerned that shrimp harvesters are depleting the traditional feeding grounds of the gray whales that have been stopping for lunch on their annual journey from Mexico to Alaska.

It’s a rich tale of natural selection, lifestyles, tourism and Native American tribal rights.

“They come from so far away to eat,” said Laura Valente, who lives next to the beach at Whidbey Shores, one of the favorite local feeding spots for the 10 or so gray whale regulars that have visited for years. “I hope they have enough food.”

Her concern is for the ghost shrimp which burrow and breed in the tidal sand in front of her house. She’s afraid there won’t be enough shrimp for the whales, and the whales will go elsewhere.

The annual return of the whales is one of the highlights of Langley’s tourist season. The whales would be missed. Economic times are tough for the community as it is.

State fisheries officials say the few shrimp harvesters working in the area are thoroughly regulated, and that there’s more than enough shrimp to go around.

“In my opinion it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Ralph Downes, enforcement officer for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, of the impact of local shrimp harvesters. “But I can understand people’s concerns.”

Ghost shrimp are two to four inches long and can cover a Pacific Northwest estuarine tideflat at the rate of 200 or more per square meter. They can burrow more than three feet deep into the moist sand.

During their visits here, usually from March through June, the gray whales often come within 20 feet of the shore, thrash around to churn the sea floor, scoop up huge mouthfuls of sand and shrimp and blow out the debris through their baleen plates.

“It’s a spectacular sight,” Valente said.

One estimate says an adult whale eats more than 650 pounds of food a day, or 340,000 pounds during its four-month feeding period.

Gray whales love ghost shrimp.

Most species of game fish love them, too. Ghost shrimp make terrific bait.

“You can catch almost anything with them in fresh water,” said Downes, who has been the fisheries enforcement officer on Whidbey Island for more than 18 years.

He said permits and licenses have been issued to three commercial wholesalers to harvest ghost shrimp on four specific tracts of tideland owned by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Downes said the areas, probably about five acres each, are in the Langley area, across Saratoga Passage on Camano Island, north of Holmes Harbor and at the north end of Penn Cove.

He said the harvesters, usually three per crew, operate at low tide, the lower the better, day or night. They use pressure hoses hooked to compressors on their boats to stir up the shrimp from their burrows in the sand, then collect the shrimp in buckets.

Downes said a three-man crew might harvest several thousand shrimp in three or four hours. The wholesalers then sell them live or frozen to local dealers or to outlets in California.

The shrimp have been harvested on a limited basis in the area for years, but the situation in front of Valente’s house is something new.

Shrimp collecting in that particular stretch of DNR-owned tidelands is being done by a few members of the Tulalip Tribes.

Valente said the first time the harvesters arrived in front of her house was about 8 o’clock at night, after dark. All at once there were lights on the beach, and the sound of a compressor.

“We didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “I called 911. They passed me on to the fish and wildlife department.”

Downes said the Tulalips issued the permit less than a year ago, exercising their legal right to 50 percent of the shellfish located in “usual and accustomed” traditional tribal fishing areas in Puget Sound.

Those rights were granted by a federal judge in 1994, following the lead of the famous 1974 decision by U.S. District Judge George Boldt that granted Native American tribes 50 percent of the Puget Sound salmon harvest.

Valente, an administrative law judge who works from home, and her husband, Mead Brown, an attorney, moved to the beach from Redmond about seven years ago.

She and her neighbors are worried that the Tulalips will increase their activity in the area. She said when most of the neighbors return from their winter hiatus, she intends to circulate a petition to present to the Tulalips, urging them to restrict their harvesting.

“It’s nothing against the Tulalips,” she said. “It’s all about the whales.”

“I think they have the capacity to clean out the beach if they want to,” she said of the harvesters.

Downes said he thinks the existing market for shrimp will limit over-harvesting, and that he doesn’t expect the number of requests for licenses and permits to increase any time soon.

“I’m not sure they could find 10 more guys who want to do it,” he said. “It’s cold, hard work.”

Downes also said the harvesters probably won’t interfere with the whales, because the harvesters come at low tide, and the whales prefer high tide. And he sees nature being able to adapt.

“Critters that live in the water are pretty good at managing small changes,” he said.

Susan Berta, co-founder of the local whale-tracking group Orca Watch, said the shrimp-harvesting debate has been going on for years.

She’s not sure she agrees with Downes that the ghost-shrimp population is far too vast and prolific to be threatened.

She said the best approach is to gather as much data as possible about the relationship between the whales and the shrimp, and to push for new regulations accordingly.

As for the Tulalip shrimp harvesters, she added: “They probably have more right to them than anybody.”

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