Forage Fish

The monitoring of forage fish spawning within the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve is one of the ways in which we can gain a better understanding of the ecosystem and its health. Forage fish are an important source of food for animals such as salmon, seals, and a variety of seabirds. Our purpose is to assess the extent and timing of forage fish spawning within the Aquatic Reserve over time. We conduct year-round beach spawning surveys for surf smelt and sand lance. By conducting spawning surveys on a regular basis, we will be able to identify sites where spawning occurs and with time, pinpoint the exact areas of the beach that are used for spawning. Surveys are conducted at two sites within the Aquatic Reserve, Luhr Beach and Tolmie State Park. Data from these samples are sent to Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for use in policy development and land management and will be available to the public through WDFW’s Salmonscape web app This displays combined data collected by agency staff, as well as volunteer organizations.Our goal is to answer two questions: When and where do surf smelt and sand lance spawn within the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve? We are also interested in learning what sections of the beach are preferred for spawning.

What are forage fish?

Forage fish are small, abundant, schooling, fish that include herring, sardine, anchovy, sand lance, and multiple species of smelt that feed on plankton and are preyed upon by larger fish, marine mammals, and various seabirds. Surf smelt are a nearshore species found from Long Beach, California to Chignik Lagoon, Alaska. They occur throughout the marine waters of Washington and in the southernmost region of Puget Sound. Pacific sand lance occurs throughout the coastal northern Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Japan to southern California, and is widespread within the nearshore marine waters of Washington, including the entire Puget Sound basin. Sand lances inhabit nearshore waters and spawn between November and February. Sites and spawning habitats of sand lance are similar to that of surf smelt: upper intertidal sand and gravel beaches.

Why are we surveying for forage fish?

Forage fish are key prey species for marine mammals, birds, and fishes, including Pacific salmon. Little is known of the biology or abundance of most stocks of forage fish: population levels, age composition, and mortality rates are unknown. An exception is herring- a species for which we have more information. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) understands that in the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the general established spawning times are summer for surf smelt, with sporadic spawning throughout the year, and fall/winter for sand lance. It is generally thought that in South Puget Sound this holds true for sand lance, but surf smelt here spawn in fall/winter. We want to find out when and where sand lance and surf smelt are spawning outside of their normal season. In order to do this, we are working with volunteers to collect sample beach sediment and examine them under the microscope to identify eggs.

If you want to participate in our Forage Fish Spawning Surveys, please email the Scientific Technician or call the Center at (360) 459-0387.