Forage Fish

Local Streams

Six different species of small schooling fish live in the waters of Puget Sound. All of these fish are critically important to our local ecosystem, because they provide a food source, or forage, for larger species of fish, birds and marine mammals.

Forage Fish 101: Survival Snacks for Salmon

What are Forage Fish and Why are They so Important?

Six different species of small schooling fish live in the waters of Puget Sound. All of these fish are critically important to our local ecosystem, because they provide a food source, or forage, for larger species of fish, birds and marine mammals. Forage fish play an essential role in the life of local Pacific salmon, as they are the major prey species which salmon depend on for survival.

Where do forage fish live?

Three of the six forage fish species spawn within the nearshore zone of our beaches. These species are the Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi), surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus) and the Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus). Surf smelt and sand lance rely on the upper, sandier beach habitat for spawning, while the Pacific herring uses the blades of eelgrass in the sub-tidal zone of the nearshore to lay their eggs. In Puget Sound, forage fish occupy every estuarine and marine nearshore habitat.

What is the concern?
Habitat loss…habitat loss… habitat loss….

Since forage fish rely on a healthy nearshore zone for survival, they are especially vulnerable to shoreline development and pollution. Substantial loss of native shoreline vegetation, poor lawn management (application of excessive fertilizer and other chemicals) and shoreline armoring, such as the construction of bulkheads, severely impact our shorelines. These actions affect the upper intertidal zone through the direct loss of and damage to spawning habitat and the interruption of critical sediment (sand and gravel) transport.

Loss of vegetation increases localized water temperatures and dehydrates eggs spawned in upper tidal areas. Shoreline armoring cuts off the natural supply of sand and gravels that naturally erodes from cliffs and shoreline banks to make up our beaches. Without this naturally occurring supply of beach substrate, the finer beach sand and gravel erode and the substrate coarsens (smaller sands and gravels wash away leaving only larger cobbles). Eventually, only the hard pan clay or rock layer remains, leaving behind a habitat that lacks proper conditions necessary for forage fish spawning.

For more information about protecting and enhancing our Thurston County shoreline through the Shoreline Master Planning process in your area, join Stream Team for a free presentation.

Less than 20% of the estuaries once found in Puget Sound (and world wide) exist today. Locally, over 90% of the shoreline in Budd Inlet has been modified with armoring and fill. This contributes to a substantial net loss of habitat in south Puget Sound specifically used by forage fish, which, in turn, affects Pacific salmon survival.

Local Streams

Surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus)

Description:

  • Up to nine inches in length.
  • Olive green in color with a silver or yellow band on their side.

Range:

  • Found in marine waters from Alaska to southern California.
  • Common and abundant throughout Washington’s marine waters, including Puget Sound.
  • Over 200 miles of surf smelt spawning beaches are known to exist along Puget Sound.

Habitat/Spawning:

  • Feed on plankton and are preyed upon by many species of fish, sea birds and marine mammals.
  • Prefer shaded beaches with over-hanging vegetation.
  • Juveniles rear in the nearshore areas.
  • Spawn in coarse sand and fine gravel in the upper tidal zone.
  • Spawn is deposited at high tide.
  • Spawn September through March in southern Puget Sound.

Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus)
(locally known as candlefish)

Description:

  • Five to eight inches in length.
  • Green-gray color above the belly with silvery sides.
  • Slender lance or sword-shaped body.
  • Needle-like nose with dorsal fin along the length of the back.

Range:

  • Found in marine waters from Baja to Alaska and the Sea of Japan.
  • 140 miles of known Pacific sand lance spawning beaches exist along Puget Sound.

Habitat/Spawning:

  • Feed on plankton in the open water during the day and bury themselves in the sand at night to avoid predation.
  • Prefer shaded beaches with over-hanging vegetation.
  • Juveniles rear in the nearshore.
  • They spawn only in mixed sand and gravel beaches in upper intertidal areas.
  • Spawn November through February.
  • Juvenile Chinook salmon depend on sand lance for 60% of their diet.

What can you do to become a good shoreline habitat steward?

If you live on a lake, stream or Puget Sound, you should:

  • Be a good shoreline habitat steward by learning about shoreline processes and marine life on the beach
  • Keep and maintain a buffer of native shoreline vegetation and trees. (If you live in northern Thurston County, send an email to streamteam@ci.lacey.wa.us to find out if your local Stream Team can help you plant trees and shrubs along the shoreline on your property.)
  • Trim tree branches for a better view of the water instead of removing trees entirely.
  • In areas of low wave action and low banks, maintain natural shoreline and avoid bank armoring.
  • If shoreline protection is necessary to protect property, work with your designer to incorporate “soft armoring” approaches, such as using logs instead of rip rap rock or concrete blocks.
  • Replace areas of lawn in your yard with native landscapes. Use alternatives to chemical fertilizers, such as compost or natural slow-release fertilizers.
  • Visit www.pugetsoundstartshere.org to learn more ways you can help protect Puget Sound at home.