Salmon Part II – the role of forage fish

By Toby Cooper, Sounder contributor.

Dr. H. Gary Greene set foot on the Cyclops I and took his first look at the vessel that was to take him to the bottom of the Salish Sea. A plotline for a disaster movie? Not at all! This was the overture to a trailblazing investigation into one of Nature’s most buttoned-down secrets – the deep-water lifecycle needs of so-called “forage fish.” Greene was hoping the Cyclops I, a submersible research mini-sub belonging to the University of Washington, would help him understand how to save and restore critical biodiversity in our crowded corner of a warming planet.

Dr. Greene’s trip that day in 2018 was but one sliver of an expanding effort to ensure sustainable populations of several species of the humbly-named forage fish, a generic for various minnow-like fish highly sought-after by bird, fish, and mammalian predators. The measure of success in these efforts will provide a window to the future productivity of the biosphere upon which we ourselves depend.

A trained marine geologist and part-time Orcas resident, Dr. Greene has published widely, contributing enormously to our understanding of both the geological foundations of our region and the biological realm it supports. In 2006, he and a colleague were first to discover that diminutive, eel-like fish known as Sand Lance over-winter in underwater, dune-like “wave fields” where they become prey for Chinook salmon.

The more significant discovery, though, has been that almost all the forage fish species are in decline, leaving the Salish Sea’s tens-of-millions of salmon, its 8.7 million associated human inhabitants, and the last 73 endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, in sobering jeopardy.

“I see Pacific Sand Lance as the yeast of the sea,” says Greene, who published three scientific papers from that one key afternoon on the Cyclops I. “They feed on zooplankton, converting those tiny organisms into protein and oils that salmon and other fish, birds, and mammals feed upon, thus initiating a trophic food cycle that maintains the ecosystem.” Greene understands that if we can’t save forage fish, we can forget about saving salmon, the birds, the whales, and ultimately ourselves.

Joe Gaydos, Science Director at the SeaDoc Society agrees. “The forage fish topic is huge,” he says, referring to his own work on herring, sand lance, smelt, and related species. “We found that diving birds that feed on forage fish are 18 times more likely to be in decline, relative to other birds.” Gaydos notes that some needed funds have come to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for forage fish studies in the last five years.

Still, a full recovery plan has not yet emerged commensurate with the ecosystem-wide needs. Certain components exist, but much more is needed.

Gaydos and Greene are on the front lines of the battle to prioritize restoration of a complex ecosystem in the face of more readily-available targeted funding for “charismatic” species – salmon and the SRKW. “Are we really doing a good job of taking care of the ecosystem?” asks Gaydos. “I don’t think we are.” He adds that WDFW has a new $47.6 million funding request that would support work at the ecosystem level. Unknown is how this request will fare in Washington’s upcoming legislative session.

Still, there is promise. In mid-2022, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation sponsored by San Juan County’s Senator Liz Lovelett known as the Kelp Forest and Eelgrass Meadows Initiative. The law sets a goal of restoring 10,000 acres of kelp and eelgrass meadows – vital habitat for all kinds of forage fish – by 2040. Sen. Lovelett calls this a “personal favorite” among her many efforts to support wildlife and combat climate change.

Sen. Lovelett’s initiative supports field personnel from the Washington Department of Natural Resources and others to physically dive in Puget Sound shallows, hand-planting bundles of marine vegetation like so much spinach in a kitchen garden. Kelp and eelgrass so-planted tend to flourish rapidly, according to experts, helping to reverse what has become a 20-year decline throughout the region. And forage fish – herring in particular – repopulate the newly vegetated zones almost immediately.

In 2020, San Juan County’s District 40 Representative Debra Lekanoff held hearings on progressive salmon recovery legislation that would have required integration of sweeping recovery plans into Washington’s Growth Management Act. Under this proposal, which did not emerge from committee in 2020, county governments would have been required to show beneficial plans to support marine ecosystems as part of their compliance with the GMA. The future of the measure is uncertain, but many see value in the concept.

On another front, the Pew Foundation recently funded the citizen-led Eelgrass Protection Initiative Consortium, which brings together scientists, Tribal representatives, conservationists, natural resource managers, and concerned citizens in a push for a clearing-house to coordinate and prioritize the sprawling restoration work. EPIC grew out of the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, with joint participation from the Northwest Straits Commission, Friends of the San Juans, the University of Washington, Washington State Parks, and others.

At Friends of the San Juans, forage fish restoration and recovery are thriving under the steady pilotage of Science Director Tina Whitman. Twenty years ago, Whitman’s insights into the interdependency of forage fish, eelgrass meadows, and predators helped to create a blueprint for wider conservation efforts now being conducted across government and private sectors alike.

“We are in such a unique position here in the islands,” says Whitman, who has amassed an enormous database of maps and observations. “Our environment and our economy are connected. What’s good for nature is also good for people. There is a real opportunity to take meaningful action to protect and restore marine shorelines and the biodiversity they support.”

Over time, Whitman has mobilized a small army of volunteers including school-age kids to help Sand Lance live up to their given name. Besides burrowing into the benthic “wave fields” that Dr. Greene surveyed from the Cyclops I, Sand Lance come to the beach to spawn. So-attuned are they to the ocean’s cycles, they float in on king tides and lay their eggs on the sandy substrate. There the eggs develop, safe from at least marine predators. Then, on a future high tide, they hatch into swimming fry and go on their way.

The enemy of Sand Lance, besides the legions of hungry birds, fish, mammals, and net-bearing humans, turns out to be anything other than sand on the beach – rocks, rubble, driftwood, and especially beach-erosion structures like groins and bulkheads. Whitman leads her volunteer army to remove boulders and bulkheads that render the beach unsuitable for spawning. Post-cleanup surveys reveal Sand Lance eggs on the clean sand within a matter of weeks.

Some remarkable stories have emerged around shoreline fish habitat. When John and Maia Vechey purchased a home on West Sound, they did not expect it to become a showcase for environmental stewardship and a model for others to follow. The Vechey’s willingly paid the premium for waterfront property, but soon saw themselves on a collision course with climate-induced sea level rise. Their solution? Relocate the residence from 40 feet to a new location over 160 feet from the shoreline.

“We wanted to get rid of the big seawall and make sure both the house and beach would be around in 100 years,” says Vechey, describing how “forage fish” unexpectedly entered their vocabulary. “By moving the house back, we were able to restore the beach for now and the future.”

Whitman helped the Vecheys secure a grant from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board to remove toxic creosote material and dock structures, plus over 530 tons of bank and beach rock and fill to unbury the upper beach. They re-graded the bank slope and replanted some 1600 native trees and shrubs. The result: instantly-restored spawning habitat for Sand Lance. Not incidentally, their waterfront property values were enhanced as well.

The project at the Vecheys highlights a landmark 2022 study released by Friends of the San Juans in which they looked at San Juan County’s 400-odd miles of coastline,

assembling key facts regarding beach structures. In 2009, there were roughly 25 miles of shoreline bulkheads and other “hard armoring” in the county. Between 2009 and 2019, three-tenths of one mile of armoring were removed to benefit beach-spawning forage fish. But in those same years, almost two miles of new armoring was constructed, 74% of which was built without the required permits.

While evidence of progress is all around, questions remain. Scientists, citizens’ groups, regulators, legislators, and private citizens are scouring every facet of the Salish Sea for answers, for facts, for solutions, and for hope. Still, Joe Gaydos’ doubt looms in the background; “Are we doing a good job of taking care of the ecosystem?” The first measure of our success – or lack thereof – may be signaled by the little fish of the sea which offer us an opportunity to win.

In part three, the Sounder explores the iconic place held by salmon in the arts and culture of Native Americans and the First Nations of British Columbia, and how their art has influenced the efforts to save and restore the species.