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Fragility of our surf smelt
On June 25, under the light of the full moon closest to the summer solstice, millions of new lives began on the beaches of the San Juan Islands.
On that night, surf smelt, a species of small forage fish, spawned at the peak of high tide. Their eggs are now deposited along the high water mark, and in as little as 14 days, these eggs will hatch, and the larval fish will return to the Sound with the tide.
Individual eggs are smaller than the tip of a pencil, and are almost impossible to see with the naked eye, yet they survive punishing tidal energy, predators, the baking sun, and even the footfalls of humans and other animals as they develop.
As hardy as the smelt are, they are in danger.
In San Juan County, only 12 miles of beaches are documented surf smelt spawning habitat. These 12 critical miles are in danger from beach armoring and development. Bulkheads placed on smelt spawning beaches often obliterate the natural high water mark, where the eggs are deposited to develop. In other areas, beach armoring reflects tidal energy that would have otherwise dissipated over the natural terrain, destroying the eggs. Elsewhere, shade trees that help regulate temperatures on beaches are being removed, eliminating what little protection the eggs have from the elements.
While the surf smelt are small, their impact on the local ecosystem is
huge. Smelt are a favorite food of native salmon, which are in turn a favorite food of orcas and humans. As the smelt habitat declines, so does the local salmon habitat.
While it may be hard to see how cutting down a tree can hurt an orca, we must remember that even the smallest changes to the native environment can have a large and lasting impact.