What are forage fish?
Forage fishes are small, schooling fish species that are a significant prey source for larger predatory fish and wildlife, including salmon. Certain forage fishes such as surf smelt are also used in commercial or recreational fisheries. One task force dedicated to researching global forage fish populations, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task, found that forage fish that become prey for other commercial fisheries species are twice as valuable globally ($11.3 billion) than they are as direct catch ($5.6 billion).
The three most common forage fish in Puget Sound are Pacific herring, surf smelt, and Pacific sand lance.
- Pacific herring are divided between migratory and residential populations. Migratory Pacific herring reside in Puget Sound during the winter and move out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the summer. Resident populations stay in the Puget Sound year-round. Pacific herring spawn between January and April within sheltered bays on submerged aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass.
- Surf smelt use nearshore habitats and spawn in a variety of upper intertidal beach habitats. The surf smelt spawn annually in predictable locations. The first spawning beaches mapped by WDFW in the 1930’s are still in use today. Populations can be divided into summer spawners, fall/winter spawners, and year-round spawners, but spawning in summer or fall is the most common.
- Pacific sand lance tend to spawn during the fall and early winter in the upper intertidal zone on sand and gravel beaches. From March to August pacific sand lance can be found using open water habitats. Adults will forage during the day, feeding on zooplankton and plankton. During the non-spawning season sand lance became inactive and burrow underneath the beach; this burrowing habitat is usually well-washed, fine sand and fine gravel free of mud.