Written by Beth Geiger

A silvery school of fish flashes beneath Puget Sound’s blue surface. Seabirds flock noisily above. The fish are surf smelt, a type of forage fish. The birds are among the many animals that prey on it.   

Forage fish are small fish, typically under 8 inches. They are essential to the food chain in Puget Sound. In fact, it seems like nearly everything bigger than forage fish eat them, including seabirds, whales, salmon, and sometimes people. They are also used as bait for commercial and recreational fishing.

Several species of forage fish nourish Puget Sound’s ecosystem. The eel-like sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus) is a small, sleek species that lays its eggs on sandy or rocky beaches. Surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus) also lay their eggs on sandy shorelines, and have spawned at the same Puget Sound beaches for decades. Eulochon (Thaleichthys pacificus) are a type of smelt commonly called “candlefish” because they grow so fat during spawning that if caught and dried they can burn like candles. Eulochon are anadromous; they swim into their natal freshwater streams to spawn. Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi), another common forage fish species, deposit its eggs in the water on eelgrass and algae.

At least one forage fish population, a stock of Pacific herring near Bellingham, has already plunged from 15,000 tons in 1973 to 1,000 tons in 2012. We don’t have enough data yet to track other forage fish. But we do know that if these snack-size prey decline, so will the many marine animals that eat them.

Maintaining a sustainable population of forage fish means providing protected, connected spawning habitats that aren’t armored, diked, or developed. The Conservancy’s work on Puget Sound shorelines does just that. By removing dikes, for example, we’ve revived healthy estuaries in places like Livingston Bay and Port Susan. We also restore lands that support our marine ecosystem, and along with it, the little fish that everyone loves to eat.