Crabbing highlights importance of coal port site to Lummis

Video: Crabbing at Cherry Point

Lummi fisherman Jay Julius fishes for crab on Tuesday, Sept. 15, and talks about a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point.
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Lummi fisherman Jay Julius fishes for crab on Tuesday, Sept. 15, and talks about a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point.

Jay Julius steered his boat into the deep water off of Cherry Point, heading north from Fisherman’s Cove Marina to where he had dropped some of his crab pots.

Dozens of small buoys dotted the water’s surface, each marking a pot belonging to a tribal member participating in a 24-hour crab “derby,” which started that morning, Sept. 15.

Julius, a member of Lummi Nation who sits on the tribe’s council, likes to say fishing opens up his imagination. On this outing, he was picturing a proposed coal terminal in operation at the same time as he and hundreds of fellow tribal members were out crabbing.

“Imagine one of those Capesize tankers coming through right here on its way to the terminal,” Julius said. “It would probably take out 30 of these pots.”

If approved, Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built just south of BP Cherry Point refinery. The terminal, proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle, would export up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year to Asia.

After the state released a study estimating that 487 vessels a year would call on Gateway Pacific Terminal, including 169 of the larger Capesize vessels, Lummi Nation in January asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject a permit application for the terminal because it would interfere with tribal fishing areas.

Lummi Nation reminded the Corps in its Jan. 5 letter that the agency has a responsibility to protect the tribe’s fishing rights, outlined in an 1855 treaty with the United States. The tribe cited a 1996 case in which a federal court upheld a decision by the Corps to block a proposed salmon farm west of Lummi Island that would have kept tribal fishers out of an 11-acre area.

While officials at SSA Marine argue that the size of the terminal is negligible compared to the extent of Lummi fishing grounds between the Fraser River and Seattle, it is larger than the salmon farm the Corps rejected some 20 years ago.

The company also said other fishing holes are more productive.

“Our research shows the actual GPT pier and wharf site to be a secondary crabbing venue,” SSA Marine staff said in a response to questions from The Bellingham Herald given on Wednesday, Sept. 30. The words were attributed to “GPT staff” rather than a named SSA Marine official.

Julius put 35 crab pots in the water on Sept. 15, including a handful where the Gateway Pacific Terminal dock would be built. The last pot he pulled out of the water late that afternoon was his biggest catch of the day.

“Last pot, right where the dock is proposed,” Julius said, after he and a family member, Austin Brockie, pulled up a pot with about 15 Dungeness crabs snared inside. He couldn’t resist mugging for a reporter and photographer who were on the boat. “Is there crab here, guys?”

“With seven pots, we got about 160, 170 pounds just right here,” Julius said later, pointing back to the shallow water off the terminal site as he returned to the marina. Sold to a warehouse at the marina for $5 a pound, the crabs in those seven pots were worth close to $1,000.

For one day at least, a Lummi fisher had proven the experts at SSA Marine wrong.

“I wouldn’t describe it as unusual,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew said of Julius’ catch, in an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 30. “Over time we’ve learned, and also been taught, that certain areas at specific times are productive and meaningful.”

By discounting the terminal location as a second-rate fishing area, SSA Marine was missing the point, Ballew said.

“Their statement is a misunderstanding of the importance of that area, and the waterways leading to it, to our fishermen,” he said.

Dispute over tanker traffic

Tribal officials are concerned about more than the project site. The size and frequency of the coal carriers coming in and out of the terminal would complicate fishing off of Cherry Point, Julius said.

“You just don’t know what the Capesize tankers are going to do because we don’t have anything of that magnitude that comes through here now,” he said.

According to the December 2014 vessel traffic study, Lummi fishers would lose an estimated 15 crab pots each a year off of Cherry Point with the additional traffic at Gateway Pacific Terminal. Tribal fishers lost 40 to 50 pots each in 2008, according to an estimate cited in the study.

“We’d have to really think about where we set (our crab pots) out here with those tankers, on top of the oil tankers, because the proposal is one (coal vessel) a day at least,” Julius said. Oil tankers tend to sit at the refinery docks for two or three days, so they’re “a little safer on a 24-hour opener like we’ve got today,” Julius said on Sept. 15.

SSA Marine officials countered that the Capesize ships that would call at Gateway Pacific Terminal aren’t all that different from vessels stopping at other industries at Cherry Point now.

“Cargo ship arrivals and departures will be known and carefully managed to provide ample notice to fishers operating in the area so they can avoid conflicts,” the SSA Marine statement said.

Media accounts of the vessel traffic study, and language in the study itself, emphasized the 76 percent increase in disruption to Lummi fishing off Cherry Point that would be caused by vessel traffic to and from Gateway Pacific Terminal. GPT officials said in their statement that the statistic is “grossly misleading.” The disruption would increase just 0.08 percentage points over anticipated levels without the terminal, from 0.11 percent to 0.19 percent, according to the study.

“We believe that we can prove that protecting fishing rights is compatible with the project and would love the opportunity to share information and explore concerns and solutions with the Lummi leadership,” the GPT statement said.

Lummi officials have repeatedly turned down requests from SSA Marine to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. Instead, the tribe has asserted that impacts to their fishing grounds can’t be avoided.

“Our fishermen have the right to practice anywhere in our usual and accustomed fishing areas, including Cherry Point,” Ballew said.

The occasional 24-hour crab derby has given way, as of Thursday, Oct. 1, to the months-long winter commercial crab season for tribal and nontribal fishers.

Julius draws a direct line from Lummi fishing as practiced 1,000 years ago to what the tribe is doing today.

“Where we just fished where the proposed dock is, you don’t have to go out very deep to harvest crab,” he said. “It’s the same with hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

“What you see now as far as crab goes, and how much we harvest, it’s not even comparable to what it used to be, before the arrival of settlers, before the arrival of everyone other than the indigenous people.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.