Whatcom County MRC Project - Forage Fish
The Marine Resources Committee has identified protection and restoration of salmon habitat as a major objective of the group. Forage fish (including Pacific herring, sand lance, and surf smelt) are important food sources for salmon juveniles as they out-migrate through the nearshore environment. Forage fish habitat is, therefore, a very important component of the world, according to salmon.
What are Forage Fish?
“ Forage fish” is a generic term used to describe a group of small schooling fish that serve as a forage base for most of the marine food web. In Washington State, the three main forage fish include Surf Smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus), Pacific Sand Lance (Ammodytes hexapterus), and Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasi). All three species utilize the nearshore beaches for spawning, where they deposit eggs, and larvae grow until they are swept away by tidal currents. As the name suggests, forage fish larvae and adults, are heavily preyed upon by other marine fish, mammals, and birds. To offset heavy, predation forage fish produce large numbers of offspring during spawning. Since forage fish spawn in areas that are often impacted by humans, minor alterations of habitat can have pronounced effects on forage fish populations. For more information about forage fish visit our marine life fact sheets or the Snohomish County MRC forage fish fact sheet.
Relationship to Salmon
With the listing of many Puget Sound Salmon stocks as threatened or endangered, the issue of maintaining salmon forage fish stocks has been identified as a high priority by the Whatcom County Marine Resource Committee (MRC). The forage fish of concern in this assessment include, surf smelt, Pacific sand lance, and Pacific herring. All three species depend on nearshore habitats for spawning and rearing. Therefore, protection of nearshore habitats utilized by forage fish will be needed if salmon recovery is to be successful.
Forage Fish Protection
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) presently attempts to protect all known, documented forage fish spawning sites from impacts of shoreline development. “No net loss” regulations for the protection of known spawning sites of these species are included in the wording of the Washington Administrative Code “Hydraulic Code Rules” (WAC 220-110), which are applied by WDFW marine habitat managers during considerations for granting Hydraulic Permits for in-water shoreline proposals. However, the habitat protection regulations apply to shorelines where spawn has actually been detected by WDFW or other qualified surveyors.
The Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee is taking part in a multi-county forage fish habitat inventory. The MRC is recruiting, training and coordinating volunteers to assist Washington State Department of Fish And Wildlife (WDFW) biologists with field surveys of Whatcom County shorelines. Gary Wood of the Island County MRC is the multi-county project coordinator for the Northwest Straits Forage Fish Assessments. The assessments are being conducted by a team of WDFW biologists, led by Dan Pentilla. The habitat inventory is also being conducted in Skagit, Snohomish, Island, San Juan, Jefferson, and Clallam counties. For more details on this coordinated inventory effort, visit the Island County MRC forage fish website.
As of June 2003, 128 survey sites have been sampled in Whatcom County
resulting in approximately 4100 feet of newly documented surf smelt spawning
Volunteers on the Beach
The Whatcom County MRC is coordinated volunteers to help conduct the surveys of forage fish habitat in Whatcom County. Volunteers spent four to six hours in the field working with a State Fisheries Biologist, collecting important data and learning first hand about the nearshore habitats of the greater Puget Sound area.
Join Jon-Paul Shannahan, the Whatcom County forage fish inventory coordinator, as he explores the world of forage fish in Whatcom County and the Puget Sound region.
- You will learn more about Pacific herring, surf smelt, and sand lance and how they are related to other species in the marine food web such as salmon, marine birds, and marine mammals.
- You will follow the footsteps of Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologists and local volunteers that are searching for forage fish eggs and habitat along Whatcom County shorelines.
- You will learn more about the marine nearshore environment and things that can be done to protect it and critical marine critters.
Through a coordinated project between the MRC and the City of Bellingham, Black Dog Productions produced an educational video about local forage fish. The video describes forage fish, their role in the local marine foodweb, and follows the steps of the forage fish habitat inventory efforts.This educational video is a part of the City of Bellingham's Water Whys video series.