Working with the K’ómoks Nation towards Q’waq’wala7owkw on their unceded territory.

Working with the K’ómoks Nation towards Q’waq’wala7owkw on their unceded territory.

Forage Fish 

feed the marine food chain

Project Watershed and a group of fantastic citizen scientist partners and North Island College student volunteers have been working hard to identify forage fish spawning beaches in the Northern Salish Sea.

Photo by Jeff K. Reynolds

Our Forage Fish Project

Forage fish, sometimes called forage species, are small schooling animals, often fish such as herring, surf smelt, eulachon (also spelled oolichan or ooligan) and Pacific sand lance but also krill, and squid. These species are united by their position in the food web providing energy to middle and top predators. Some of these species are better studied than others. Beach spawning forage fish such as Pacific sand lance, and surf smelt are two Salish Sea species we don’t know a lot about. Our work is to learn more about these beach spawners and the habitats they need. To do this we, along with a host of citizen (community) science volunteers and academic collaborators, collect sand samples from beaches and look for DNA, or tiny eggs under microscopes. We use this knowledge to develop tools like models and maps to provide a deeper understanding to guide decisions.

Surf Smelt (top) and Pacific Sand Lance (bottom). Photo by  K. Perry.

Forage Fish Habitat Mapping

Local Beach Monitoring Efforts

Project Watershed is conducting beach spawning forage fish surveys using visual egg searching methods, and new environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques. The egg search efforts have been conducted primarily with the help of dedicated community scientists who have been surveying northern Salish Sea beaches like Goose Spit, Shelter Point, and Smelt Bay since 2019. Over 30 beaches in the region have been surveyed and tiny Pacific sand lance eggs have been observed on over 20 of these. Although surf smelt spawn on similar beaches and were previously known to be here, their eggs have been suspiciously absent from our samples, and all northern Salish Sea samples. Check out the map below of our beach monitoring efforts.

Regional Habitat Mapping Efforts

Project Watershed is supporting the development of habitat suitability models (HSMs) of forage fish habitat across BC one region at a time. In 2020-2023 Project Watershed supported the development of a Pacific sand lance subtidal burying habitat suitability model, and a Pacific sand lance intertidal spawning model. Detailed descriptions of these models can be found in peer-reviewed published research papers here and here (open access). You can download the GIS (.tiff) file for the intertidal habitat suitability model or access an interactive map to see if it predicts habitat on your favourite beach on the Strait of Georgia Data Centre. In 2023 we kicked off the next phase of this project to develop HSMs for outer coast of Vancouver Island.


Why create habitat suitability models?

Habitat suitability models, or HSMs, provide us with heat maps that predict where suitable Pacific sand lance habitat is most likely to be. HSMs are more than just maps though, they are powerful tools that allow us insight to better conserve these species. For example the models allow us to estimate how much suitable habitat exists, and estimate how much is within given jurisdictions such as in protected areas like Provincial Parks, Regional Parks, or in Wildlife Management Areas.  Another powerful way we can use models is to understand where habitat may be in areas we can’t easily access like remote Islands. We can also learn from HSMs, because they are built from both the observations of where a species is known to be present, and from underlying environmental information such as fetch, beach slope, or presence of nearby estuaries, HSMs can tell us what are the most important features of a species habitat. For example, in the intertidal sand lance HSM, we learned that the presence of nearby estuaries is the strongest predictor of where suitable sand lance intertidal spawning habitat will be. This tells us that shorelines close to estuaries are really important, and if we want to ensure we have lots of forage food for predators like salmon, whales, and seabirds, it might be wise to protect estuaries, reduce any obstructions like dykes or sea walls that might decrease connectivity, and protect the shorelines near but just outside the estuary from damage or development.


Pacific sand lance subtidal burying habitat suitability model map by Robinson et al, 2021. (a) MaxEnt prediction and (b) standard deviation of the probability of occurrence of suitable Pacific sand lance burying habitat in the Strait of Georgia. Warmer colours indicate a higher probability of suitable sand lance burying habitat. Extrapolation areas identified using the Multivariate Environmental Similarity Surface (MESS) approach are displayed in dark grey.

The Coastal Forage Fish Network

 The Coastal Forage Fish Network (CFFN) is a network of environmental NGOs, Community groups, and First Nations working across the Salish Sea and the West Coast to better understand the status of forage fish populations in the region. The CFFN’s mission is to facilitate collaboration between individual groups working on forage fish to determine where best to focus efforts, resources, and research to address data gaps in order to better inform management and regulatory decisions.


Much of our forage fish work is powered by community (citizen) science. Project Watershed is part of the Coastal Forage Fish Network where non-profits & NGOs, First Nations, and individuals collectively come together to collaborate on forage fish specific research, monitoring, and restoration. If you want to help find forage fish eggs and habitat on shorelines in your home reach-out with our sign-up form below. We provide training for groups and individuals on how to search for this very specific habitat and cryptic species. You can join one of our beach monitoring teams or start up your own! 

Being part of a beach spawning forage fish monitoring team involves visiting beaches, collecting sand, and using microscopes. This work has opportunities to suit everyone’s abilities and talents, you can join in for all of it, or focus on specific tasks. As part of the training our biologists will teach you how to assess beach habitat, layout transects, collect samples and preserve them. Back at the office/lab we will show you how to prepare samples and identify eggs under the microscope. 

We sample core beaches on suitable tides every 10 to 14 days in the winter sand lance spawning season, November to February. Once eggs are detected at our core beaches, we begin blitz surveys. Blitz surveys involve sampling as many suitable beaches as possible. We sample core beaches once a month throughout the year, as surf smelt are known to spawn in every month. These surveys identify where important fish nursery habitats are and the long-term monitoring provides data about spawn timing, distribution, and long-term persistence. We are actively collaborating with researchers to improve our processes and better understand these important food web species.

Join us for beach fun!

Local Ecological Knowledge

If you have any information to share please fill out the Local Ecological Knowledge Questionnaire. You can also:

  • Send photos of beaches where you have seen forage fish in the past
  • Share local knowledge over casual conversation and send us your stories 

Thank you for sharing your knowledge on forage fish and contributing to our ongoing collection!

    Funders & Partners

    This work is funded by the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund and with support from the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the Comox Valley Regional District. Local partners in this initiative include K’ómoks First Nation and North Island College.


    Forage Fish News

    Project Watershed receives $1.4 million to support forage fish research!

    Project Watershed receives $1.4 million to support forage fish research!

    Project Watershed is very excited to announce the award of $1.4 million dollars of funding from the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund to support our forage fish research, monitoring and restoration! This funding, provided over 3 years (2023-2026), will support our intertidal and pelagic forage fish research as well as that of the Coastal Forage Fish Network, which brings together stewardship groups and First Nations partners across coastal British Columbia.

    Wanted: Herring Observations

    Wanted: Herring Observations

    As you may know, Project Watershed has been researching forage fish and their habitats for many years now. To date our work has focused on beach spawning forage fish, specifically Pacific sand lance and surf smelt.

    Pacific Sand Lance Day Success

    Pacific Sand Lance Day Success

    December 8th was the first annual Pacific Sand Lance Day!

    These skinny forage fish are understudied and important to our coastal ecosystem. Sand lance have over 100 known predators, and are particularly important to nesting sea birds. This eclectic fish buries into sandy sea beds, hibernates all winter, and spawns on beaches!

    The Spawn is On!

    The Spawn is On!

    Pacific sandlance eggs ~ Aaron SchmidtBeach survery ~ Tom GrimmerSand sample under microscope ~ Aaron Schmidt Our winter Pacific sand lance season was kicked off with eggs being found on Cortes Island on November 6! Later in the month eggs were found at Shingle Spit...

    Layne and Brenda of 40 KNOTS with Caitlin Pierzchalski ~ L.Stewart