Surf Smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus)
smelt are a schooling forage fish that reach up to 9 inches in length.
This fish has a green back with a silver or yellow band on its sides.
Some other defining characteristics of the surf smelt are their
tiny scales and small, rounded adipose fin.
Surf smelt can be found on coasts from Southern California to Alaska
and are abundant in shallow nearshore areas of the Northwest Straits
and Puget Sound. Major spawning areas of Whatcom County include
beaches at Birch Point, Cherry Point and Squalicum Harbor, among
others. Newly documented spawning beaches in Whatcom County are
being identified through spawning habitat surveys.
In this region, surf smelt spawn year round on high intertidal beaches
of sand and gravel. Under only a few inches of slack water on the
high tide, the female surf smelt deposits her eggs, fertilized in
unison by a male. The small, sticky surf smelt eggs adhere to sand
grains. Depending on beach temperatures, incubation may take from
2-8 weeks until, at another high tide, the larvae emerge and join
the plankton, drifting in nearshore environment. Although the movements
of juveniles and adults are not well known, surf smelt are thought
to return as adults in their second year to spawn where they hatched
and may return seasonally thereafter for up to five years - if not
consumed as prey.
surf smelt rear in nearshore areas while feeding on plankton. Little
is known about the movements of adult surf smelt, until their return
to spawning grounds at the age of one or two years.
Surf smelt, like other forage fish, play a critical role in the
local marine food web, as their name suggests. These fish are the
food source for a variety of other marine species higher in the
foodweb, such as salmon, seals, ducks, and wading birds. The condition
of forage fish populations are vital to the health of other marine
species populations that rely on forage fish for a primary food
While surf smelt have been gaining attention for their role as food
source of other highly valued fish, the surf smelt themselves have
supported commercial, sport and tribal subsistence fisheries. The
annual commercial catch for Washington State through 1995 was 100,000
tons, with quantities increasing as new markets were developed.
The sport fishery for surf smelt runs from July to January. Unlike
other baitfish, surf smelt are popular for human consumption as
well as serving as bait for larger fish.
Traditional tribal practices involved catching the fish in smelt
nets and drying them for consumption later in the year.