Puget Sound's bottomfish may land on the Endangered Species List

The National Marine Fisheries Service said has begun a year-long biological "status review" of seven species of fish in Puget Sound as a first step to determine if they need protection under the Endangered Species Act. None of the species, interestingly, is a salmon. Several salmon species were listed under the ESA in Marsh.

The seven are Puget Sound populations of Pacific herring, Pacific cod, Pacific hake, walleye pollock and brown, copper and quillback rockfish. They are part of a more expansive petition sent to the agency last February to examine 18 Puget Sound species, the largest number the federal agency has ever been asked to consider under the federal species-protection law. It is also the first time the agency has been asked to conduct such a review of a West Coast fish species other than salmon.

Although until the early 1980s there was a commercial Puget Sound hake fishery, and until recently there was a limited fishery for herring and their eggs by both tribal and non-tribal commercial fishermen in Puget Sound, the remaining species are typically targeted by sport fishermen.

The agency said there was insufficient information on the remaining 11 species -- all varieties of bottom-dwelling rockfish -- to warrant a status review of them. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, said a review was not needed on any of them.

"We have already taken many actions to rebuild these species, including restricting harvest and creating sanctuaries where no fishing is allowed," said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings. "These and other actions will serve as part of detailed, scientific conservation plans that hopefully will allow us to avoid ESA listings." Koenings said that WDFW expects the conservation plans to be delivered to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) this fall.

But Mike Sato of People for Puget Sound, a Seattle-based conservation organization, said the state is long on plans, but short on action. "They talk about all the plans they’ve got, but there is nothing in the water," he said. "There is no firepower there. You will have to start dealing with enforcement and compliance."

The status review, scheduled for completion next February, will make a science-based recommendation on whether or not an Endangered Species Act listing may be warranted. If at that time the agency makes a formal proposal to list any of the seven species, it would have another year to make a final decision to commit to a formal listing.

The agency said it would be working closely with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington as it progressed with its status review.

The petition was submitted by Sam Wright, a retired biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, who lives in Olympia, Wash. Wright could not be reached for comment.

In his petition, Wright says species diversity in Puget Sound has been markedly reduced, abundance of each species has declined precipitously and the average fish size has become much smaller. There are few mature females, and each female is producing fewer offspring.

The establishment of marine wilderness or no-fishing zones, Wright says in his petition, is key to the survival of these fish. In 1970, a 27-acre refuge from fishing was established in Puget Sound. The site, known as the Edmonds Underwater Park, provides "unambiguous empirical evidence of true rockfish capabilities," he says. He cites studies showing that there are between seven and 50 times more rockfish in the Underwater Park than in other heavily fished areas of Puget Sound.

Several other no-take zones have been established in Puget Sound, including the San Juan Marine Preserves, Sund Rocks in Hood Canal, and Titlow Beach near Tacoma. In total, less than 1 percent of the habitats used by rockfish in Puget Sound have been protected.

For several years, citizen groups like People for Puget Sound and Friends of the San Juan Islands have tried to create the Northwest Straits National Marine Sanctuary in the northern portion of Puget Sound, in waters between Whidbey Island and the Canada-U.S. border. Congress killed the idea last year, passing instead a bill creating a locally controlled Northwest Straits Commission as an alternative to a federal marine sanctuary. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Jack Metcalf, calls on seven Puget Sound counties to oversee the recovery of depleted species, creation of marine protected areas and the protection of nearshore critical habitat. The commission also has representation from Native groups and the governor’s office, but none from the federal government.

Any county that participates in the commission gets $10,000 in start up money so long as they embrace the goals of species recovery and habitat protection.

"It is a far cry from a sanctuary," said Sato of People for Puget Sound. "We consider it admittedly experimental but we’re willing to go along with it. At least now there is a framework in the northern part of Puget Sound that with the list of salmon, and the pending listing of groundfish and herring, that puts all species on an equal footing."

The most pressing need at this time, Sato says, is scientific information. "We don’t even know what’s out there," he said. "We need shoreline inventories. You have to know what your baseline is or you’ll never get recovery."

Paul Koberstein