Forage fish ecology in Washington State

Photo of two researchers conducting a beach survey
Photo by WDFW
Researchers conducting a beach survey

Surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus) and Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus) are important food for marine mammals, birds, and fishes, including Pacific salmon. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) protects these fish species and their spawning habitat by limiting human activities under the terms of a permit (called the Hydraulic Project Approval, (HPA)) on beaches where spawning has been documented. Extensive surveys have sampled many of the beaches in Puget Sound. However, despite good information on the distribution of spawning beaches our understanding of the ecology and protection needs for these species is very limited.

WDFW conducts research that will allow us to better ensure adequate protection of Pacific sand lance and surf smelt given current and anticipated environmental conditions, without unnecessarily constraining human activity. This research includes conducting surveys of forage fish habitat to determine where and when these fish spawn. These surveys are carried out year round on beaches throughout Washington's shoreline. These surveys consist of the documenting beach conditions and collecting a bag of about 2 liters of sediment to examine in the lab for the presence of fish eggs. Shoreline property owners who would prefer to have their property removed from potential sampling areas for this project can notify us by filling in this opt-out form.

Publications and posters

Forage fish beach survey training and materials

Photo of surf smelt in gloved hands of researcher
Photo by WDFW
Surf smelt

Forage fish beach surveys are conducted to identify where and when surf smelt and Pacific sand lance spawn in the upper intertidal. Training to conduct beach surveys is provided by WDFW on an annual basis, or more frequently as needed. Survey training qualifies an individual as an “approved biologist” to conduct beach surveys for intertidal spawning forage fish. Regulatory surveys related to HPA permits may only be conducted by WDFW or an approved biologist (WAC 220-110-271), and all surveys conducted by individuals not employed by WDFW require a scientific collection permit or memorandum of understanding from WDFW.

For information regarding trainings, materials, and a current list of WDFW-approved biologists, please contact Wendel Raymond,, 360-809-8380 and Kirk Krueger,, 360-902-2604. Additional information regarding routinely scheduled trainings can be found through the Washington Coastal Training Program.

Spawning location map

The map below shows the documented spawning locations of Pacific Sand Lance, Surf Smelt, and Pacific Herring in Washington State. This map should not be considered all inclusive of spawning habitat because not all potential spawning habitat has been surveyed, and it is possible for surveys to fail to detect eggs even when eggs are present.
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