Research shows ample supply of sand shrimp

Finding a balance between sand shrimpers and whale watchers will be the million dollar question moving forward for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

That was the theme presented by a representative from the state agency at a recent public meeting conducted by the Island County Marine Resources Committee. The meeting was a precursor to sand shrimping resuming on tidelands around Saratoga Passage Monday, June 13. Under rules passed by the department, commercial fishers Wahoo Enterprises and Morgan Enterprises are permitted to harvest sand shrimp from June 10 to Feb. 1.

Research conducted by the department, Cascadia Research Collective and two state universities showed an ample supply of ghost shrimp for both gray whales and harvesters. It was a determining factor in the lifting of a shrimping ban, which was in place for two years. Langley city leaders and whale advocates successfully lobbied the state to close the fishery, arguing that harvesting may be having adverse ecological and tourism related impacts.

Jacob Linard of Wahoo Enterprises said in a phone interview after the meeting that his 20-plus-year family business has no intentions of causing friction in the community as it resumes sand shrimping. He also said that much of the work is based on demand, which will help in not depleting the gray whale’s food supply.

“I feel like the state made the right decision in putting us back to work,” Linard said. “The research came back exactly as we’ve all known it would — that it’s completely sustainable for the long term.”

Blain Reeves, assistant aquatic resources division manager, provided an update on the department’s research and goals moving forward. Reeves said the research was conducted to find out whether there were enough intertidal sand shrimp, also called ghost shrimp, on state-owned tidelands around Saratoga Passage to support both gray whales and a sustainable commercial harvest. Research is still on-going, said Reeves, but there’s sufficient data to justify lifting the ban.

“We believe there is enough research to go forward with a limited fishery,” Reeves said.

Langley Mayor Tim Callison said he appreciated Reeves and other researcher’s efforts in taking a scientific approach to understanding the behaviors between the whales and the shrimp. He urged the researchers take into consideration an even longer ban of shrimping.

“I would be amiss if I didn’t speak a little provisionally and ask you to take a look at restricting further any of that area activity between Sandy Point and West Langley because that is our coastal area and that’s where people are expecting to see whales,” Callison said.

Reeves said their research, which cost approximately $100,000, included tallying the amount of shrimp that could be found in feeding pits and the distribution of feeding patterns in the region. Researchers also determined the yearly extraction amounts of ghost shrimp by gray whales and harvesters. The department treaded lightly in making their determination knowing the importance of gray whales to the area.

“Whales are not only a key species to the city of Langley but they’re a keystone species in Puget Sound,” Reeves said. “None of us at DNR want to authorize something that’s going to effect higher level organisms, especially whales.”

Around South Whidbey, gray whales feed along Hidden Beach, West Langley, Sandy Point, Tulalip Shores, Mabana Beach and Mission Beach. To determine the biomass, or total number of organisms in a given area, researchers pumped cylinders into the beach. Reeves said there was no difference between the biomass of sites where whales were feeding and harvesters were collecting.

They also found that the standing stock of ghost shrimp was 30 times greater than the combined yearly estimate of shrimp extracted from gray whale feeding and harvesting.

Reeves said one of the department’s biggest objectives is to create a regional management plan to help determine amount of fishing conducted by Native American tribes such as the Tulalip. Treaty rights allowed tribal fishers to harvest during the ban but they have “conscientiously” avoided areas being monitored, Reeves said.

“I think everybody has the same goal to allow some bait to enter the market to support these communities that, like Langley, depend on natural resources and vacationers coming to fish for this stuff,” Reeves said. “It’s a balancing act.”

Reeves said the next phases of their research will include finding out how fast shrimp recover after being eaten or harvested. If the recovery period is dramatic enough, the time window in which fisheries can sand shrimp may be reconsidered.