Forage Fish

Forage fish, an assemblage of small schooling species also known as bait fish, play a crucial role in the food web of the Salish Sea. They are essential prey for larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. They also serve as a source of food and fishing bait for humans. The Forage Fish Vital Sign tells us about the population status of Pacific herring and other forage fish species in Puget Sound. Forage fish depend on clean water and natural shorelines. They are susceptible to impacts associated with shoreline development such as poor water quality, habitat degradation, and vessel noise.

School of herring. Photo credit: Florian Graner.

Key Vital Sign Messages

  • Pacific herring is an important prey species for Chinook salmon and countless other fish, birds, and mammals.
  • Pacific herring is harvested both commercially and recreationally in Puget Sound. They serve as one of the only locally harvested baitfish available for salmon and bottomfish fisheries.
  • The size and timing of herring spawning varies regionally and can vary dramatically from year to year.
    • Despite an overall increase in total Pacific herring spawn biomass from 2010 to 2020, each stock’s current spawning biomass is below its respective 25-year mean baseline reference and 2020 target value.
    • In 2020, spawning biomass increased 235% over the previous year, reaching a level not seen since the 1980s! Over three quarters of this increase was from two spawning areas in the ‘Other Stock Complex’ (Stick et al., 2014). One of those spawning areas had previously been at such low abundance that it was undetected in 2016 and 2017. While some spawning areas dramatically increased in abundance, others continued to decline.
    • Unusual seasonal timing and areas of herring spawning events in 2019 continued into 2020, continuing a trend seen since monitoring began in the 1970s.
  • Several other forage fish species, such as Pacific sand lance and surf smelt, live in Puget Sound.
    • Northern Anchovy, another forage fish species, is widely reported throughout Puget Sound. Reports of schooling fish between 2016 and 2019, and anchovy presence in predator diets, suggest that anchovies may be increasing. However, researchers lack official population estimates. In 2020, beach seining in south Puget Sound did not encounter juvenile anchovy in the fall for the first time since 2014, which may indicate the end of the anchovy boom.
    • Like anchovy, there is no official estimate of sand lance abundance in the Salish Sea, but researchers and fishermen reported an apparent increase in sand lance during 2020. WDFW and several partners of the FF&FW work group continue to monitor sand lance spawning habitat and have also begun investigating sand lance burying habitat.
    • For the first time since WDFW adopted a quota in 2014 for the commercial surf smelt fishery for Puget Sound, the quota was not reached in 2020. This was primarily due to a reduction in the number of fishermen participating in the fishery, and likely reduced demand due to the pandemic.
  • Zooplankton are important prey for forage fish. New studies on these small organisms by the University of Washington, King County, and the Marine Survival Project will improve our understanding of the Puget Sound food web.
  • Future indicators of marine benthic invertebrates and groundfish will also help us understand the food web in the Salish Sea. The WDFW Groundfish Management Unit, in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries and the University of Washington, continues to assess status and trends of bottom-dwelling organisms over time.

Contributing Partners