Forage fish (or forage fishes) are small schooling fish that form a critical link in the marine food web between zooplankton and larger fish and wildlife consumers. They occupy every marine and estuarine nearshore habitat in Washington, and much of the intertidal and shallow subtidal areas of the Puget Sound Basin are used by these species for spawning habitat. Status of forage fish populations can be an indicator of the health and productivity of nearshore systems (PSP 2009). Information on forage fish life history, distribution, and habitat preferences is summarized in Marine Forage Fishes of Puget Sound (Penttila 2007) and the Forage Fish Management Plan (Bargmann 1998).
The three most common forage fish species in the Puget Sound basin are Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi), surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus), and Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus).
Source: Puget Sound Science Review.
Forage fish in Puget Sound
Forage fish occupy every marine and estuarine nearshore habitat in Washington, and much of the intertidal and shallow subtidal areas of the Puget Sound Basin are used by these species for spawning habitat.
Once hearty 'hooligans' declining in the Salish Sea
A river spawning species of forage fish known as the longfin smelt is rare and getting rarer in the Salish Sea. Biologists are looking into the mysterious decline of the ‘hooligans’ of the Nooksack.
Ancient harvests: A history of Salish Sea herring
Scientists believe that herring have been a staple of Salish Sea food and culture since humans first arrived here at least 12,500 years ago. That importance has continued into modern times, even as herring numbers have declined in parts of the region.
The herring defenders
Each winter and spring, researchers survey the sometimes spectacular spawning events of Puget Sound's Pacific herring. They have found wide swings in the fish's population and an overall decline in herring numbers since the 1970s, but little is known about the cause or what this might mean for the health of the food web. We spent a day with a biologist spotting herring eggs and considering the future of one of our region's most ecologically and culturally important fish species.
Assessment and management of Salish Sea herring
A 2018 report published by the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife brings together an assessment of key science and other knowledge related to herring recovery in the Salish Sea. The report was produced with support from the SeaDoc Society and received input from a cross-border team from state and federal agencies, universities and area tribes.
Could anchovies and other fish take pressure off salmon and steelhead?
A recent influx of anchovies into Puget Sound may have saved some steelhead from predators, but researchers seek more evidence to prove the connection. Our series on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project continues with a look at these and other potential impacts from predators on the region's salmon and steelhead.
The secret lives of forage fish: Where do they go when we aren’t looking?
Some of the most important fish in the Salish Sea food web are also the most mysterious. Researchers have only begun to understand how many there are, where they go, and how we can preserve their populations for the future. A University of Washington researcher describes how scientists are looking into the problem.
Spawning habitat for forage fish being lost to rising tides
Where shoreline bulkheads remain in place, the loss of spawning habitat used by surf smelt is likely to reach 80 percent.
Forage fish are losing places to lay their eggs
Rising sea levels are expected to exacerbate habitat loss caused by bulkheads, according to studies in the San Juan Islands.
Disease in herring threatens broader food web
Pacific herring have long been considered an essential part of the Puget Sound food web. Now, studies are beginning to reveal how diseases in herring could be reverberating through the ecosystem, affecting creatures large and small. We continue our coverage of the ecological impacts of disease in Puget Sound with this look at the region's most well-known forage fish.
Conservation and ecology of marine forage fishes— Proceedings of a research symposium, September 2012
The symposium was held on September 12–14, 2012, at the University of Washington, Friday Harbor Laboratories campus. Sixty scientists, graduate students, and fisheries policy experts convened; showcasing ongoing research, conservation, and management efforts targeting forage fish from regional and national perspectives.
Forty years of change in forage fish and jellyfish abundance across greater Puget Sound, Washington (USA): anthropogenic and climate associations
A 2015 paper in the Marine Ecology Press Series reports a trend toward more jellyfish and less of some forage fish species in Puget Sound. The paper analyzes more than 40 years of state data, and assesses potential human causes for the shift.
Study panel on ecosystem-based management of forage fish in Puget Sound
Forage fish represent a critical link in the Puget Sound food web and help to sustain key species like salmon, marine mammals and sea birds. But the region’s forage fish may be vulnerable on a variety of fronts, according to a new study panel report from the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute. Download the panel's summary and proposed research plan.
Resilience to a severe marine heat wave at two Pacific seabird colonies (author summary)
A 2023 paper in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series examines seabird reproductive and dietary response to a severe marine heat wave affecting the California Current ecosystem from 2014 to 2016. The study involved rhinoceros auklet colonies on Destruction Island (California Current) and Protection Island (Salish Sea). The paper's first author Eric Wagner describes some of the findings from the study in this informal summary.
Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - March to June 2022
Low air temperatures, rain, and late snow accumulation pushed back the discharge of meltwater to Puget Sound this season. The water temperature in Puget Sound was mostly at expected levels, but cooler in South Sound by May. Central Sound saw more oxygenated conditions. This year, La Niña weather made flying for aerial photography challenging, but by June, sunny days made up for it, revealing a high number of schooling fish, unusually low tides, and a glimpse of macroalgae to come. Internal waves in Central Basin and Puget Sound, and the beauty of Puget Sound from the air, are a reminder of the unique place we live in.
Puget Sound Marine Waters 2020 Overview
The tenth annual Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview looks at marine water quality and other conditions in the region in 2020. According to the report, there were few extreme weather or ecological events in 2020, but overall, conditions in Puget Sound were generally warmer, sunnier, and wetter than in typical years. The overview also examines patterns and trends in numerous environmental parameters, including plankton, water quality, climate, and marine life.
Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - February 3, 2021
Rivers are flowing higher than normal since 2020. Winter weather has been warmer and wetter. In marine waters, temperatures have become too cool for Northern Pacific anchovies to tolerate in North Sound. From patches of jellyfish and snow geese, to sediment and early blooms, there is more happening in the winter than you might expect. Puget Sound has many species worth showcasing such as the heart crab – a shy critter that wears its heart on its shell.
Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - March 16, 2020
After a wet January, precipitation has been low and air temperatures have been cooler. As a result, rivers gages are lower than expected, a pattern that has continued since last year. In March we approached the coldest water temperatures of the year. Herring are spawning in Port Madison. Although these cool temperatures are good for herring, temperatures are close to the survival limits for anchovies. If you can handle these temperatures, now is a good time to go diving to benefit of good underwater visibility, just avoid windy days near wave-exposed beaches. If you are lucky, you might see the kelp humpback shrimp, a master of camouflage.
2018 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview
A new report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program says climate change altered the base of Puget Sound's food web in 2018, diminishing microscopic phytoplankton necessary for marine life. Scientists also observed lower abundances of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - September 12, 2019
This year, air temperatures were warmer than in previous years, and this pattern is predicted to continue. Precipitation was low and is now improving, yet river flows remain low. By August, Puget Sound surface water temperatures were 0.6 °C warmer across all regions; this could have shifted the timing of optimal temperatures for some marine organisms. In September, blooms are limited to inlets. Jellyfish are abundant in Sinclair Inlet, and anchovies reside in Eld Inlet. Macroalgae are still plentiful. Learn about the benefits of beach wrack and a DNA barcoding project supported by Ecology.
Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - May/June 2019
Warm and dry conditions this spring are predicted to persist into summer, resulting in saltier and warmer than normal Puget Sound water conditions. Early upwelling and a premature melt of the snowpack means nutrient-rich ocean water likely already entered Puget Sound. This sets the stage for a lot of biological activity. From the air, it is obvious that the productive season is in full swing. We saw large algae blooms in Central Sound along with abundant Noctiluca. Huge numbers of anchovies were documented in Case Inlet and other finger inlets in South Sound, attracting hundreds of marine mammals.
Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - February 21, 2019
Although fall and winter were warm, February brought cold snowy weather and low river flows. Despite colder air temperatures, the productive season has already started in Hood Canal and Holmes Harbor. Puget Sound waters were warmer than expected through January, and the warmest waters were in Hood Canal, possibly creating a thermal refuge for cold-sensitive species such as anchovies. We saw lots of sea lions feasting on anchovies in Case Inlet, and we may have captured some herring spawning activity. Unusual for mid-winter, we saw jellyfish patches in Eld and Budd inlets. See the new publication about ocean acidification featuring twenty-five years of our marine monitoring data!
Pacific herring distribution in Puget Sound
Pacific herring are a pelagic fish species found from northern Baja California to northern Honshu Island, Japan. They are found throughout the Puget Sound basin and are a mix of “resident” and “migratory” stocks.
Climate change and ocean acidification may affect herring development
New research shows that warmer and more acidic oceans could lead to shorter embryos and higher respiration in Pacific herring.
Managing the Salish Sea’s ‘Herring 401 K’
Scientists argue that herring managers should take a tip from stock market investors and diversify the population’s “portfolio.”
Removal of creosote-treated pilings may assist herring recovery
Researchers are analyzing the harmful effects of creosote-treated wood pilings on Pacific herring and shellfish in Puget Sound. Studies show that piling removal projects can ease the impacts, but only if carefully done.
Stormwater mimics oil spill's effect on Pacific herring
Pacific herring exposed to stormwater in Puget Sound show some of the same effects as fish exposed to major oil spills. Symptoms include heart and developmental problems.
2016 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview
The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program has released its sixth annual Marine Waters Overview. The report provides an assessment of marine conditions for the year 2016 and includes updates on water quality as well as status reports for select plankton, seabirds and fish.
PCBs in fish remain steady while other toxics decline
A new study shows a surprising decline in some toxic chemicals in Puget Sound fish, while levels of PCBs increased in some cases. Scientists say the study shows that banning toxic chemicals can work, but old contaminants remain a challenge as they continue to wash into Puget Sound.
2016 Salish Sea Toxics Monitoring Review: A Selection of Research
A 2017 report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program presents an overview of selected recent monitoring and research activities focused on toxic contaminants in the Salish Sea.
Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program
The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP) is an independent program established by state and federal statute to monitor environmental conditions in Puget Sound.
Shoreline Armoring in an inland sea: Science-based recommendations for policy implementation
A 2016 article in the journal Conservation Letters makes policy recommendations to address shoreline armoring in the Salish Sea.
2015 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview
The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program released its fifth annual Marine Waters Overview this week. The report provides an assessment of marine conditions for the year 2015 and includes updates on water quality as well as status reports for select plankton, seabirds, fish and marine mammals.
Salish Sea snapshots: Plastics in fish may also affect seabirds
Sand lance in parts of British Columbia are ingesting small pieces of plastic that may be passed through the food web.
New theory rethinks spread of PCBs and other toxics in Puget Sound
Researchers are proposing a shift in thinking about how some of the region’s most damaging pollutants enter Puget Sound species like herring, salmon and orcas.
Population diversity in Pacific herring of the Puget Sound
A 2016 paper in the journal Oecologia describes how individual herring populations in Puget Sound exhibit a portfolio effect, collectively influencing and stabilizing the region’s population as a whole.
Food web connections beyond the marine areas of Puget Sound
Food webs are natural interconnections of food chains and depict what-eats-what in an ecological community. While Puget Sound represents a specific food web, the organisms that reside within that web often travel outside the region. In this way, one community's food web can be drastically affected by a change in a neighboring ecosystem.
The health of an ecosystem is tied closely to the health of its food webs. This article provides an overview of the concept, origin, and characteristics of a food web and how predator and prey relationships are shaped in the Salish Sea.
Puget Sound Fact Book
The Puget Sound Fact Book brings together statistics and other information about the health and makeup of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Areas of focus include climate change, geography, water quality, habitats, human dimensions and regional species. The fact book was prepared for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Puget Sound Partnership.
Fishes of the Salish Sea: a compilation and distribution analysis
A 2015 NOAA report creates an updated and comprehensive list of the fishes of the Salish Sea.
Puget Sound's Health 2002
This is the Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team's third report on key indicators of Puget Sound's Health. We prepared the report in response to the Washington State Legislature's request to evaluate efforts to protect Puget Sound. The report includes updated information on the 17 indicators presented in 2000 as well as information on two new indicators.
Shedding new light on eelgrass recovery
Scientists say eelgrass, an unassuming flowering plant found just off shore in Puget Sound, is vital to the health of the ecosystem. They also say the plant is declining. New and increasingly urgent efforts to restore it brought a group of researchers to the 2014 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference.