Whatever floats your boats - The state and a Whidbey Island boat builder reach a compromise on dredging

By Theresa Goffredo
The Daily Everett Herald Writer


FREELAND, WA-- This is a story about a few 4-inch herring that blocked the launch of a $10 million, 450-ton fireboat -- temporarily.

It's a story in which 305 jobs hung in the balance.

It's a story about how a state agency, charged with protecting public resources, and a big business found resolution, with a little help from the governor's office.

Above all, it's a story with a happy ending.

The ending happens today when state Fish and Wildlife managers issue a permit to Nichols Bros. Boat Builders on Whidbey Island. That permit will allow the Freeland company to deepen its launch area to deliver the one-of-a-kind fireboat to its new owners.

Also today, Nichols Bros. keeps its end of the deal by transplanting a swath of eelgrass, a plant that provides critical habitat for herring to live and reproduce. The company will then continue to keep tabs on the eelgrass over time for about $20,000.

What happens today reveals a well-kept secret that habitat managers wish would become common knowledge -- that compromise between man and nature can be reached without high costs or heartache.

"People don't understand they can have a dialogue with us," said Deborah Cornett, state regional habitat program manager. "It is our job to protect public resources, but even given that, we have some flexibility."

For Nichols Bros. President Matt Nichols, this was a case where "everybody gets pats and a hug at the end."

And he's happy about the ending, because without a state permit to dredge, Nichols stood to lose time, money and possibly employees.

"If it didn't happen, I would probably have had to find a different means of launching, one that was probably not the best for everybody," Nichols said.

The start of this story began six months ago.

Employees for Nichols Bros., based off Holmes Harbor on the east side of Whidbey Island, were in the midst of beehive activity at the boat yard. The crew was building the fireboat for the city of Los Angeles and also building a 360-foot-long, 3,500-ton cruise ship called the Empress of the North for the American West Steamboat Co.

Today, crews are putting the finishing touches on both vessels, which are bigger than the boats they normally build. The fireboat will be finished first and company officials expect to launch it Saturday. But because the fireboat and cruise ship are quite large, Nichols knew the company's launch area would have to be dredged to accommodate the hulls.

About 300 cubic yards of soil, close to 30 dump-truck loads, has to be cleared away to get the vessels out.

Nichols received permits to dredge five years ago without a hitch. This time, though, eelgrass had become established in the launch area. Because of that, the state agency stalled in giving out a permit.

"You can't assume anything in life because then they throw you a curve ball," Nichols said.

Eelgrass is considered by state experts as a "critical habitat of concern." That means, in part, that fish such as herring use the grass for spawning. Herring have been documented at Holmes Harbor since the 1970s. Their populations have hit hard times over the years, but this year biologists have estimated about 573 tons, or millions of fish, in the area. To compare, the 2001 estimate was 344 tons.

Herring is an important indicator species, providing clues to biologists about the health of Puget Sound. The silvery fish, used primarily as bait in catching shark, salmon and halibut, are also important as a food source for larger fish.

For those reasons, state habitat managers don't normally allow any sort of development where there are herring spawning, said Kurt Stick, a state fish biologist.

Herring typically spawn from early February through early April. So only a few juvenile 4-inch herring should still be hanging out at Holmes Harbor when Nichols is ready to launch.

Even so, the state agency wasn't warm to the idea of issuing Nichols a permit to dredge.

"In general, there's wonderful habitat in Holmes Harbor, a wonderful eelgrass bed virtually over the entire shoreline," Stick said. "So you might say, hey there's loads of habitat, how could this little bit make a difference, and that's probably a valid argument.

"But if you make a precedent and say, go ahead because it's only a small amount, how do you tell anybody no?" Stick said. "That's the hard part I guess."

When he didn't get his permit, Nichols worried that the Empress of the North would become the largest permanent building on Whidbey Island.

Nichols, 55, a third-generation boat builder, feared that his years of helping the environment would be his punishment instead of his reward. Nichols said he had worked to make his shipyard clean, beefing up the filtering systems and complying with state Department of Ecology rules and regulations.

DOE spokesman Larry Altose said the company has, in general, been cooperative and has had no major violations.

Three times a week, Nichols sends one of his employees out onto the tidelands to pick up litter.

"We fixed this mess 40 years ago. Nothing was growing, and we got eelgrass to grow," Nichols said. "And now they don't want us to dredge."

To help him secure permits, Nichols called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers. He then dialed some staff in Gov. Gary Locke's office.

A conference call was held last week. The problem appeared to be resolved.

Habitat manager Cornett said she knew Nichols went to the governor. While not unusual, people don't need to do that, she said.

"If people could just sit down and talk with us. We usually have some room for discussion," Cornett said. "We have a pretty high standard, and the public demands a lot, and it's our responsibility to protect, so that means some time we do a lot of talking."

Though happy with the outcome, Nichols wished that the system had room for rewards. He said the issue wasn't necessarily about jobs vs. environment, because his company wasn't going to hurt the environment.

"It's about how far we've gone with the protection of our environment. It's about the overprotecting part," Nichols said. "We might be out of balance a little bit."

You can call Herald Writer Theresa Goffredo at 425-339-3097 or send e-mail to goffredo@heraldnet.com.


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