The federal government yesterday declined to protect a plummeting population of herring near Bellingham as an endangered species, saying...

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The federal government yesterday declined to protect a plummeting population of herring near Bellingham as an endangered species, saying that a collapse of the once-abundant schools of oily fish there would not drive all Puget Sound herring to extinction.

The decision infuriated environmentalists who had argued that the herring of Cherry Point are different from other herring, and that some animals, particularly a species of migrating ducks called surf scoters, rely so heavily on them for food that the birds, too, are in decline.

But federal officials said a team of scientists has agreed that herring populations are naturally volatile, prone to wild population swings, and that other fish would likely recolonize Cherry Point if herring there were to actually disappear.

“They’re pretty dynamic creatures,” said Scott Rumsey, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), which made the decision.

Pacific herring are a food staple for everything from salmon to orcas. Some 15,000 tons of herring used to return to spawn at Cherry Point, just south of Birch Bay between Bellingham and Blaine.

But after Cherry Point’s population dropped 94 percent between 1970 and 2000, environmentalists asked the government to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act.

The precise cause of the decline remains unclear, said Duane Fagergren, projects director for the Puget Sound Action Team, a state agency working to restore the Sound’s ecological health. Scientists theorize that disappearing eelgrass beds and the shortage of some food sources, such as microscopic zooplankton, may be factors.

The herring of Cherry Point spawn in spring, rather than winter when most other herring do, Fagergren said. Their oily, energy-rich eggs are an important food source for the scoters and other creatures when other prey is scarce, Fagergren added.

“These are unique fish,” said Fred Felleman, an activist with Ocean Advocates, who said he expects to sue NOAA Fisheries in hopes of reversing the decision. “If they disappear and the thing is recolonized [by other fish species], you lose that unique run time.”

NOAA Fisheries officials yesterday noted that herring populations at Cherry Point were significant in the 1960s and 1970s because other herring populations in the region had been fished nearly to extinction, but that those populations have since rebounded. Even the Cherry Point population has doubled since 2000.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093