In this issue: SeaDoc’s forage fish science makes a difference, study shows recreational surf smelt harvest can be measured accurately, give the gift of the Salish Sea, Science Prize nominations due December 18, Why I give, Dr. Gene Helfman talks on sharks for family night lecture.
Abstract: Fisheries for Surf Smelt Hypomesus pretiosus in the inland marine waters of Washington State are currently managed under the assumption that annual recreational harvest is roughly similar to commercial harvest. Commercial harvest is monitored by submission of mandatory fish tickets that document sales to licensed vendors. Assessment of recreational effort and harvest is complicated by (1) the lack of a licensing requirement for fishers, (2) the fact that fishing occurs throughout the year but tends to peak during locally specific time windows, and (3) the ability of anglers to engage in the fishery from private shorelines in addition to public access points (e.g., boat ramps). To adequately estimate recreational harvest, a survey method must be developed that accounts for spatiotemporally diverse harvest patterns. Here, we report the results of a pilot study that combined access-point and roving, boat-based creel survey techniques to sample a known region of high recreational fishing pressure during the traditional fishing “season” for Surf Smelt. In addition to providing a statistically valid estimate of harvest at these locations, we described patterns of both fishing effort and catch across time, in association with various environmental variables, and at public access points and private beaches. We found that based on the sitespecific estimates generated here and the number of high-use recreational fishing sites in Puget Sound, Surf Smelt harvest has the capacity to exceed the level that has been assumed for purposes of management. We conclude that combining access-point surveys and roving creel counts represents a logistically feasible and cost-effective method for estimating recreational harvest of Surf Smelt throughout Puget Sound or harvest in any other fishery with similarly complex spatiotemporal participation.
“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.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is taking comments on smelt fishing rules until April 11, 2014
SeaDoc has prepared a fact sheet about smelt in the Salish Sea.
We encourage you to use the available data on smelt to form an opinion about smelt fishing and to share your conclusions with the Commission.
SeaDoc is focused on identifying problems in the marine ecosystem and then using science to help find solutions.
Recently we were able to provide some important data on some very important fish: Surf Smelt. Now these data on the recreational harvest of smelt, along with other information, are being used by the general public and fisheries managers to make an important decision about Surf Smelt harvest in Washington.
Surf Smelt are one of 10 species of small schooling fishes that are critical for turning energy from plankton into fat and energy to feed larger fish (like salmon and lingcod), marine birds, and marine mammals.
Also, they are one of the few forage fish species for which there is a commercial and recreational fishery in Washington. Last year we funded a project to look at how many pounds of smelt are being harvested in the recreational fishery. It turns out, more than managers expected.
Now the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is looking to the public to decide if they should reduce the commercial or the recreational smelt fisheries (or both). The decision is not a scientific one, but it does use science. This is an opportunity for members of the public to help decide if they are comfortable with the current harvest, or if they are worried that the current harvest level is taking too many smelt away from the bigger fish they care more about, or from marine birds they like to watch. Specifically, the Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering three options.
1) Leave things exactly as they are.
2) Reduce both commercial and recreational harvests.
3) Eliminate the commercial harvest and reduce the recreational harvest.
One of SeaDoc’s primary goals is to make sure science gets off the shelf and gets used by decision makers and the public in making policy. We’ve done the science. Now it’s time for it to get used.
SeaDoc is NOT an advocacy organization. We’re not going to tell you what you should say in your comments, but we do want to encourage you use the available data to figure out your position and make your voice heard.
Check out our fact sheet on Surf Smelt in the Salish Sea. Use it to learn more about this important species and to learn how easy it is for you to be a part of this rule making process. Please share it with other people who are interested in the ecological and economic health of the Salish Sea.
Commenting is easy. You can do it online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/smelt/comments.html. It can be as quick as filling out your name and choosing a preferred option, or you can include a comment of up to 1,000 characters. If you’re interested in attending a public meeting and giving 3 minutes of in-person testimony, read our hints in the fact sheet.
The fact sheet is here:
Learn more about our smelt fishing study here:
Photos: J. Gaydos
In this newsletter: Where do you stand on smelt fishing; eelgrass disease study shows older and shallower beds may be vulnerable; Science Advisor Peter Ross leads new ocean pollution initiative at the Vancouver Aquarium; SeaDoc ED Kirsten Gilardi named co-director of UC Davis’s Wildlife Health Center; seeking donations for the 2014 Wine ‘n’ Sea Auction.
Project update 2015
This study has been published in the peer reviewed journal, the North American Journal of Fisheries Management. Get the details.
According to the author, based on the results of this study the Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to assess smelt harvest at several sites in 2016, bringing a Sound-wide estimate of harvest one step closer to reality.
Additionally, in 2015 the Washington Legislature fully funded two important studies that will help the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife take the next step in understanding and protecting forage fish populations.
The first study will inventory forage fish spawning beaches throughout Puget Sound and the second will conduct mid-water trawl surveys to estimate the biomass of adult forage fish. Expect the results of both studies in 2017.
Project update June 2014
On June 16, 2014, the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission released new smelt fishing rules that limit harvest in order to protect valuable species.
The new policy:
- Adds a new 60,000-pound annual quota for the Puget Sound commercial smelt fishery.
- Reduces the commercial fishery by one day each week, allowing commercial fishing from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday during seasonal openings in each area.
- Closes inactive commercial smelt fisheries, including dip bag and purse seine, which have not been in use for at least 10 years.
- Closes nighttime recreational dip net fishing. Recreational dip net fishing will be allowed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Tuesday. Jig gear can continue to be used seven days per week, 24 hours per day.
Population abundance estimates are not available for smelt. However, Puget Sound-wide commercial catch and catch rates indicate relatively high harvest over the last several years. The commission also requested an annual review of the commercial and recreational smelt fisheries in Puget Sound.
SeaDoc would still like to see the Commission require recreational licenses so that it could determine how much smelt is being harvested recreationally. Also, we’d like to see Washington State determine the total biomass of smelt so that we can have evidence that the harvest is sustainable.
In 2012, SeaDoc funded a study to determine the size of the recreational harvest of Surf Smelt in Washington State.
Why not just have anglers report their catch like we do with salmon and crab?
Strangely enough, Surf Smelt is the one marine fish that you DON’T need a state fishing license to catch.
As one of our very important forage fishes, smelt have a critical place in the Salish Sea food web. Knowing the recreational catch is important so we can determine if harvest is impacting smelt populations or the other fish, birds and mammals that depend on smelt for food.
A creel survey is pretty straightforward: staff from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife go out to popular fishing spots, interview smelt anglers and examine their harvest to find out how much they caught.
Joe Gaydos went along on one of the studies and reported, anecdotally, that most of the people he chatted with were happy to talk to him, already had fishing licenses, and used their catch for food.
Want to see pictures and video of the smelt harvest or learn more about forage fish issues? Read on!
Learn more about SeaDoc’s work on forage fish at the following pages:
- Joe Gaydos’s 2012 letter to the editor of the Seattle Times making the case for why we need to focus on forage fish
- Research on how changes in forage fish availability affect the reproductive success of Common Murres on Tatoosh Island
- An overview of Nacho Vilchis’s project to understand marine bird declines in the Salish Sea
- Summary of the 2011 Forage Fish Needs Assessment Workshop sponsored by SeaDoc and others.
Video (11 seconds; opens in new window):
Alternate link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRCawph2-TA
All video and photos by J. Gaydos.
Vilchis, L. I. C. K. Johnson, J. R. Evenson, S. F. Pearson, K. L. Barry, P. Davidson, M. G. Raphael, and J. K. Gaydos. 2014. Assessing Ecological Correlates of Marine Bird Declines to Inform Marine Conservation. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12378. (Open access publication)
Where have all the birds gone?
The last 30 years have seen precipitous declines in many of the bird species that visit the Salish Sea during the winter.
Using various tools, private money and strategic collaborations, SeaDoc made a substantial investment to understand the problem of declining marine birds. We recently completed research demonstrating that diving birds that eat schooling forage fish are the species most likely to be in decline.
Tackling such a big issue is not easy. Understanding how we worked through this issue gives you a good idea of how SeaDoc can address what might seem to be insurmountable obstacles to healing the Salish Sea. It also shows you how private support makes our work possible.
Step 1: Identify the information gap
In 2005, SeaDoc brought researchers and managers from the US and Canada together to talk about the state of marine bird populations in the Salish Sea. It became clear that we were facing a big problem. Birds were declining in different jurisdictions, but it wasn’t clear how steep the declines were, which species were involved or what factors were behind these declines.
Because no one took a big-picture approach, bird restoration efforts were focused on one species at a time. But was there something going on at the ecosystem level causing multiple species to be declining?
We realized we needed an ecosystem-level look at which species were in decline and why.
Step 2. Get around transboundary roadblocks
Decades worth of data had been collected in Washington and British Columbia by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada. But the organizations used different survey techniques and geographic scales so people had not been able to look at the data to get a perspective for the entire ecosystem.
SeaDoc was the ideal group to take on the challenge of merging these differing data sets from two different countries. State, provincial, and federal governments rarely have the time for this kind of effort. Also they have political constraints and pressures that make it hard to see past their borders.
Step 3. Hire a scientist to do the work
Collaborating with multiple groups, merging complex data sets and analyzing decades of data is a full time job for several years. Stephanie Wagner, a woman who loved the Salish Sea and its creatures, made a legacy gift to SeaDoc before she died. This gift provided the funding that allowed us to hire Dr. Nacho Vilchis to lead this important work.
Step 4. Use an epidemiological approach
Dr. Vilchis’ first task was to get the data sets to “talk to each other.” WDFW conducts aerial transects from a plane. Bird Studies Canada and Audubon use point counts. Both are good techniques, but they produce surveys that are difficult to compare.
Nacho, who has a background in the statistical manipulations of large data sets, found a way to combine and use the three surveys in one overall analysis. Then he trimmed the set down to just 39 core species, removing the occasional visitors and the birds for which he didn’t have enough data to draw robust conclusions.
He also used GIS maps of the Salish Sea to connect each data point not only to a geographical area but also to major habitat characteristics, such as water depth.
Drawing heavily on the “Doc” part of SeaDoc, we used an epidemiological approach to find a likely diagnosis. Just as the family doc quizzes you for risk factors for diabetes or heart disease, SeaDoc found that two lifestyle factors among seabirds correlated to a very high risk of population decline.
Step 5. Translate results into recovery
The work, published in the internationally-acclaimed peer-reviewed journal Conservation Biology, showed that birds that dive to find food are much more likely (11 times as likely) to be in decline compared to non-divers.
But it’s worse if you’re a diver on a restricted fish diet. Diving birds that focus their efforts on small schooling fishes called forage fish were 16 times as likely to be in decline. Forage fish are small schooling fish that convert plankton into fat and are eaten by other fish, birds and mammals. These include herring, smelt, anchovies, eulachon, sardines, and sand lance.
But publishing a paper is not the end. It actually is just the beginning. This paper is now being used by scientists, managers and policy makers as evidence for the need to recover marine birds. Recovering forage fish will not just benefit birds, however. Because forage fish turn plankton into fat that’s available for other animals, they are a key part of the ecosystem and their recovery will benefit salmon, lingcod, rockfish, harbor porpoise and many other species within the Salish Sea.
Four key factors made this project successful.
1. Good data
Dr. Vilchis could not have conducted this analysis without scientists and citizens having already spent decades collecting rigorous data. The collection of these data took money, persistence, and forethought.
From the beginning, this project has been a story of collaboration. From the individuals collecting data over two decades to the senior scientists who worked out a way to share their data, it’s taken the work of many people working in different jurisdictions to make this happen. Our collaborators shared three huge datasets collected on two sides of an international border. They only did so because they were confident that SeaDoc would be able to use the data to produce robust scientific results.
3. Working on the level of the ecosystem, not the politics
This was the first study to look at bird declines across the entire Salish Sea marine ecosystem.
Most Canadian or US maps stop at the border, but the Salish Sea does not. Too often, the mandates and responsibilities of the people who work at the various state, provincial, and federal agencies tasked with keeping wildlife populations healthy also stop at the border.
SeaDoc, being privately supported by people like you who understand how important it is to treat the ecosystem as a whole, works across the entire ecosystem.
4. An extraordinary legacy gift
In the end, one person’s financial gift made this project possible.
Without Stephanie Wagner’s legacy gift, this project would have been just a good idea that never got done. Instead, we made it someone’s job to find the truth that was hidden in the data.
Stephanie Wagner’s thoughtful gift enabled us to point clearly to a hidden problem affecting the productivity of the entire Salish Sea ecosystem. With her gift we were able to do good science that will make a difference in how scientists and managers work on healing the Salish Sea.
Put plainly, money can change the world for the better.
Please contact SeaDoc or your financial advisor if you’re interested in including SeaDoc in your will so you can leave a legacy for the health of the Salish Sea.