DNR ends ghost shrimp harvesting business

“The whole thing feels like it was meant to be,” said Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, who led the city’s charge for a two-year moratorium on ghost shrimp harvesting.

Langley city leaders got their wish this week when the Washington State Department of Natural Resources announced an end to ghost shrimp harvesting in Saratoga Passage.

Citing a lack of information about the impact of removing the crustaceans, also known as sand shrimp, from gray whale feeding grounds, the DNR informed five commercial harvesters their permits to access sites around Whidbey and Camano islands would be terminated May 23. Some were notified last Friday, others — seemingly coincidentally — on Earth Day, April 22.

“The whole thing feels like it was meant to be,” said Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, who led the city’s charge for a two-year moratorium on ghost shrimp harvesting. “This has tremendous implications for tourism in the future. … That’s a significant draw for our city.”

Local shrimpers, however, are not so excited as McCarthy’s vision of  a more prosperous future for Langley will come at the expense of their pocketbooks.

“I guess Langley thinks they’ll fill up the whale-watching boats if we’re not here,” said Randy Linard, a Freeland-based ghost shrimp harvester. “We’re just out of business.”

Since November 2013, McCarthy and a city-organized sand shrimp advocacy committee pushed the state to suspend commercial harvesting around the city’s shoreline. The committee submitted anecdotal evidence that gray whales have not visited the area as frequently as in past years and drew a correlation between the lack of whales and the use of hydraulic water wands to harvest the whales’ primary Puget Sound food source: sand shrimp. The city’s committee also gave the state agency several studies — McCarthy said all stacked they measure about one foot — about gray whale behavior as it relates to sand shrimp.

Along with information provided by the city, the state office looked at the basis for permitting annual shrimp harvesting since the 1990s. What they found was dated information. All told, it was enough to spur a halt to the harvest indefinitely.

“The information pointed out a need to revise our management strategy,” said Blain Reeves, assistant division manager of science, shellfish and invasive species management, aquatic resources division of the agency.

“We couldn’t continue to support this as a sound scientific decision,” he added.

The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for land resource management in Washington, which includes aquatic resources. No public comment or input was sought on the decision, said Reeves, because the agency has authority over rights of entry to state-owned aquatic lands.

“This is a matter of managing a use authorization,” he said.

Howard Garrett, a member of the committee and a co-founder of the Orca Network, was surprised at the breadth and immediacy of the decision and fully supported the termination of commercial harvesting on state-owned lands.

“We’re thrilled, we’re elated,” Garrett said. “It’s a fantastic response from a state agency in such a short time.”

“Usually it takes months or years of review and more hard-core field data,” he added.

News of the decision spread quickly through Langley, which has recently committed to being a whale-centric city to rival the tourism draw of the San Juan Islands. City money helped create the free-to-visit Langley Whale Center, and Langley coaxed whale watching company Mystic Sea Charters to launch from South Whidbey Harbor in Langley. Keeping the main food source of migratory gray whales in the area, McCarthy and whale advocates from the Orca Network hope, will bring the whales back to the nearshore in the coming years.

“That’s a very good move because the anecdotal data we have from our own observations, those of citizens and members of Orca Network, indicates that the feeding patterns of the whales are being affected by the lack of food,” McCarthy said. “We think by stopping the harvesting of the ghost shrimp, the sand shrimp will return and then will reestablish a pattern of available food for the whales.”

Some gray whales migrating from the Baja Peninsula in Mexico stop in Puget Sound on their way to the rich eating waters around British Columbia and Alaska. When they are in Puget Sound, the whales’ main food source is the sand shrimp. Garrett said he hoped to see whales returning next year to their traditional feasting areas around Langley to find abundant sand shrimp beds, which could encourage them to stick around longer. The whales scoop huge chunks of silt from the seabed, then strain out the water and sand to trap the sand shrimp.

“This has got to be a vital boost for them on their way north,” he said.

One group that is not benefiting from the decision is the handful of shrimp harvesters. Of the permit holders, only one is a Whidbey Island resident: Randy Linard of Freeland, owner of the bait shop Wahoo Enterprises. Two other permit holders live around Western Washington — one in Burlington and one in Granite Falls.

Linard’s shrimp operation occurs, he said, an average of two or three times per week, depending on the weather and tides. A commercial shrimp harvester since 1984, and working around Whidbey since 1988, he said he had not noticed a decline in whale visits or ghost shrimp populations.

“It’s a sustainable thing,” Linard said, of the commercial shrimping industry.

He urged people who support the ghost shrimp bait business to contact Peter Goldmark, Commissioner of Public Lands.

The impacts of the state’s decision figure to be large. According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates, the commercial harvest of ghost shrimp totals more than 50 tons annually. Ghost shrimp, Neotrypaea californiensis, are used commercially as bait, often as live bait — the agency’s website even has a page on catching salmon in freshwater using ghost shrimp.

Washington may lose a “nominal” amount of money from the terminated permits. Reeves said that the permit fees totaled less than $1,000.

The permits, technically called rights of agreement for land use, were in the first year of a five-year deal.