How large is the Salish Sea’s smelt population, and why does it matter?

Sand lance and surf smelt USGS photo

“Can you imagine making your family’s budget without knowing how much is available to spend? That is essentially what’s happening with smelt.”

Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society and Ginny Broadhurst of the Northwest Straits Commission recently wrote a joint statement calling for increased investment in the study of the small schooling fishes that form a foundation for the food web of the Salish Sea:

On April 11th the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will hear from the public about a proposed rule change regarding fishing for surf smelt. Smelt are small fish – the type you might use as bait to catch larger fish. We’re used to arguing about salmon, the “catch,” not the bait, so this is a novel concept to many. But smelt, along with herring, sand lance, eulachon and other small schooling fish, are food for iconic larger fish like salmon and lingcod, amazing diving birds such as puffins and murres, and marine mammals including harbor porpoise, so talking about the bait is important.

This proposed rule addresses smelt, one of the only two baitfish species that are harvested both commercially and recreationally. Naturally this is sparking controversy among user groups. Commercial and recreational fishermen believe the smelt are doing fine and want to keep harvesting them while a cadre of bird watchers see these small fish as the key to recovering many marine bird species in decline and are looking for stronger protection. The problem is not the controversy, but that we haven’t made the commitment necessary to have the data we need to have a meaningful conversation about smelt.

We applaud the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s attention to this small fish. Our concern is the continued lack of investment in gathering information needed to intelligently manage our valuable marine resources, in this case smelt. Can you imagine making your family’s budget without knowing how much is available to spend? That is essentially what’s happening with smelt. We are making an important decision about possibly curtailing commercial and recreational harvest without really knowing how large the smelt population is, which makes it awfully hard to know how much we can sustainably harvest.

For years the SeaDoc Society, the Northwest Straits Commission, and a suite of others, have worked with limited budgets to study and draw needed attention to these small, energy-rich fish that feed larger species. But this might be like having a bake sale to fund a war. We spend billions of dollars gathering information for national security or tracking economic indicators. In contrast, we have consistently underfunded the intelligence gathering needed to understand the important foundations of our ecosystem. The Salish Sea is an important economic driver for our region. It provides food for our tables, as well as recreation, jobs, and a quality of life that attracts top businesses to the region. As citizens of Washington, we should demand more attention to important baitfish populations.

Smelt feed on plankton and they become an energy-rich source of food for people, fish and birds. The so-called “bottom of the food web” is critical to the rest of the food web and warrants our attention. It is time to provide the financial resources that the state and tribes need to better understand how we can safely both harvest them and leave enough for the fish and wildlife. It is time to work with our Canadian neighbors to fund and develop a comprehensive and meaningful plan for baitfish restoration and protection throughout the Salish Sea. Let’s act like the health of the Salish Sea ecosystem and our economy depend upon these unsung heroes, because they do.

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Photo: Juvenile sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus) (top) and surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus) (bottom) collected on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Scale is in inches. USGS photograph by David Ayers. Courtesy EarthFix photo stream on Flickr.