Forage Fish
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Closeup photo of Sand Lance with descriptions of identifying anatomy.
Photo: Several Sand Lance in a tray. Photo: Closeup of Sand Lance head.

Forage Fish Identification Guide

Pacific Sand Lance
Ammodytes personatus

Although a common species in the nearshore, rarely caught in Puget Sound by commercial harvesters using dip bag net gear. Sometimes caught in Puget Sound by recreational harvesters using forage fish jig gear or forage fish dip net.   Very rarely caught off the Washington coast by commercial or recreational harvesters. 

Description: The body of the Pacific Sand Lance is small, elongated, and slender.  The body depth is uniform from the opercular region to the beginning of the anal fin.  Body depth then begins to taper towards the forked tail.  They have a straight lateral line and a forward-projecting, pointed lower jaw with no teeth.  Pacific Sand Lance have a horizontal skin fold along each side of their belly and no pelvic fins.  Their scales are reduced to fine bumps along their body as an adaptation for burrowing in sand and fine gravel.  A recent analysis of sand lances throughout the Pacific Ocean led to a renaming of the species found in Washington from A. hexapterus to A. personatus (Orr et al. 2015).

Maximum Size: To 26 cm (10 in) in length. 

Maximum Age: Up to 7 years, rarely over 3 years in Washington.

Range/Habitat: Pacific Sand Lance range from California to the Aleutian Islands and the southeastern Bering Sea. They are found schooling in depths that range from the surface to 80 m (262 ft) in Puget Sound, and off the coast to perhaps 272 m (892 ft).  Pacific Sand Lances have two very distinct behaviors.  During the day they are mostly found in large schools in the water column and during the night they are mostly found buried in the sand to avoid predation. They generally spawn in sandy intertidal areas, with eggs often taking on a coat of attached sand grains, making them nearly invisible. The young-of-the-year Pacific Sand Lances settle in shallow waters and occupy shallow eelgrass and algae beds, but also live over sand, cobble and bedrock.  Pacific Sand Lances feed primarily on small, pelagic organisms, although occasionally on benthic invertebrates.  This species is prey to multitudes of fish, birds, and marine mammals.


Photo: WDFW