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Study panel says Puget Sound forage fish may be vulnerable

As go forage fish, so may go the health of Puget Sound. That’s the conclusion of scientists who say small schooling fish like Pacific herring, surf smelt and Pacific sand lance play a big role in the marine food web.

Oily and full of calories, these fish are an important source of food for familiar predators like salmon, sea birds and marine mammals.  But the region’s forage fish may be vulnerable on a variety of fronts, according to an expert panel of scientists who met at Friday Harbor Labs for a five-day workshop last month.

The Puget Sound Institute, under the advisement of the Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel, brought together experts to examine research questions related to the status and trends in abundance, key vulnerabilities, and predator needs of forage fish species in the Salish Sea. Panelists identified a need for a common research and management framework for assessing vulnerability of forage fish, citing multiple threats like loss of shoreline habitat, diseases, contaminants and climate change.

The August 25-29th workshop was the first step taken by a March study panel convened to assess the state of the science, conduct synthetic and quantitative analyses, and make management recommendations related to forage fish in Puget Sound over a period of 1-2 years. This was the first in what is expected to be a series of meetings by the group. (View slides from some of the panel presentations.)

The study panel was chaired by Puget Sound Institute Research Scientist Tessa Francis, and co-chaired by Tim Essington of the University of Washington and Mark Mangel of the University of California, Santa Cruz and Puget Sound Institute. Additional panel members included Doug Hay, Department of Fisheries and Ocean, Canada, Paul Hershberger, United States Geological Service, Dayv Lowry, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Alec MacCall, NOAA – Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Ole Shelton, NOAA – Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and Megsie Siple, University of Washington.

While organizers caution that any conclusions from the session are preliminary and not comprehensive, some of the key points that emerged from discussions included:

  • Emphasis on the scarcity of data describing the status and trends of forage fish species, and the need for additional monitoring and research;
  • The need to address multiple vulnerabilities of forage fish simultaneously, in a common framework;
  • The importance of long-term monitoring strategies that address key scientific questions.

Initial activities planned by the panel include constructing a life-history model of forage fish that will both form the foundation of an analysis of key vulnerabilities of forage fish, as well as be used in a larger management strategy evaluation model. In addition, the panel proposes to assess the sensitivity of predators to changes in forage fish population to not only inform questions about ecosystem needs for forage fish, but also to indirectly quantify the status and trends of forage fish species for which we have no direct measurements of abundance.

A formal report describing the workshop will be presented to the Puget Sound Partnership Science panel.

Download the preliminary study panel description.

Read more about forage fish in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.