Healthy forage fish habitat imperative to salmon recovery

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The Suquamish Tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are updating the current state of forage fish spawning habitat in East Kitsap County.

Healthy forage fish populations are essential for salmon recovery because salmon rely on them as a high energy food source. The stocks also help reduce predation pressure on juvenile salmon because other fish, marine mammals and birds consume forage fish too, said Paul Dorn, the tribe’s senior research scientist.

Surf smelt, sand lance, herring and northern anchovy are commonly found in Puget Sound. Surf smelt have been harvested by the tribe for consumption since time immemorial.

“We’re striving to protect the remaining beaches where forage fish spawn because of their importance to the tribe and to salmon recovery,” Dorn said. “It’s a race against time with rapid development and climate change.”

Since 2016, the tribe, the state and Puget Sound Corps (PSC) have been collecting beach samples from more than 200 sampling points each month including East Kitsap beaches from Hansville to Yukon Harbor, and Blake Island. The state and PSC crew members then take the samples to Olympia to be processed for eggs, if present, and identify the species and development stages. The sampling effort, which is expected to last at least one calendar year, will help identify the beach locations and times of the year when surf smelt spawn.

The ideal beach for forage fish depends on the species, Dorn said. Surf smelt utilize pea gravel while sand lance prefer fine loose sand. Surf smelt spawn higher in the intertidal zone whereas sand lance are found further down the intertidal zone. The eggs of both species attach to grains of sand or gravel that can be distributed by wave action and currents.

Overhanging vegetation on beaches are important to the survival of surf smelt eggs because it provides shade to protect the eggs from heat when the tide is out, and it may provide spawning adults protection from predators. However, this habitat is easily compromised by development such as nearby bulkheads because manmade structures affect natural tidal erosion and sediment transport, Dorn said.

“Forage fish are eaten by almost everything in the ocean,” Dorn said. “Protecting their spawning habitat is essential to maintaining this healthy food chain.”

Partners in this project include the Squaxin Island Tribe, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Ecology and Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Northwest Straits Initiative and several of the region’s marine resource councils.

The state received a special legislative appropriation to conduct these surveys throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Suquamish Tribe is using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Estuary Program funds to support this work.
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