Forage Fish Monitoring

A Place at the Table: Benefits of Beach Restoration
A video by Friends of the San Juans about the removal of large unnatural rock
from a historic feederbluff and the restoration of a local beach

Beach spawning forage fish on YouTube
Stephen Foster follows Ramona de Graff to a training session

Forage Fish Matters: Microplastics and our Forage Fish
one million seabirds are killed each year by floating plastic


Ramona de Graaf, forage fish expert, was a PICA guest speaker in 2010. She proved to be a very dynamic, enthusiastic and passionate presenter with impressive knowledge of the subject. This resulted in members of PICA being inspired to become part of the monitoring program which attempts to locate forage fish eggs and thus verify spawning activity in a given area.  Ramona had surveyed the beaches on Pender and several beaches looked very promising for sand land and possibly surf smelt.

In July 2011 we held an all day workshop to train volunteer monitors.  Participants spent the morning at the library meeting room hearing presentations and observing displays, then the afternoon unfolded at Medicine Beach in a hands-on session being guided through the monitoring process. In July 2012 Ramona conducted a follow up workshop, also at Medicine Beach.   

In January 2014, Ramona confirmed that that surf smelt were spawning on Medicine Beach and sand lance using Mortimer Spit.

Since then, volunteers have taken samples from six beaches:  Mortimer Spit, Hamilton Beach, James Point (at the end of Mackinnon Road), and Shark Cove (on the north side of the bridge to South Pender), Irene Bay, and Medicine Beach.   We try to check one beach every four to six weeks. 

The Forage Fish Monitoring team is under the direction of Jon Ruiz, who organizes the volunteers and gets them out on the beaches, year-round, rain or shine.


These small schooling fish form a key link in the marine food web. They consume plankton and tiny animals floating near the surface, and in turn become protein for everything higher in the food chain, e.g. bigger fish, seabirds, marine mammals and ultimately whales. They are a crucial food source for all ocean wildlife, and thus are of commercial and economic importance. Healthy stocks of forage fish impact the commercial fishery, the recreational fishery, bird watching (80% of the diet of puffins, marbled murrelets and rhinocerus auklets is sand lance), whale watching and even forestry (forage fish feed the salmon whose carcasses provide important nutrients for the forests).

These little fish are very vulnerable to overfishing, climate change, habitat loss, and changing ocean chemistry. An oil spill would be disastrous for them. However, the biggest threat to their habitat is shoreline development as they spawn mainly on mixed sand and gravel beaches and anything that affects the composition of beaches can render those beaches unsuitable for spawning. Particularly problematic are the hardening of shorelines; altering shorelines with docks, groins etc.; removal of the vegetation that provides shade and cooling, protects from drying winds and is habitat for the insects that feed juveniles; removal of the logs that prevent shoreline erosion.


We are primarily concerned with two species that are shore spawners: Pacific Surf Smelt (spawn May to September) and Sand Lance (spawn November to February). They both depend on nearshore habitat for their survival but also require eelgrass beds and kelp forests for rearing the juveniles. Monitoring takes place on the near-shore, and requires specific equipment, much of which Ramona purchased or made on our behalf. Volunteers bring their own digital camera and GPS for data collection and we recently purchased a clinometer to measure beach elevation.

The monitoring process consists of four stages: 

1. Site selection: sediment size and type, position in the intertidal zone, vegetation and shade features, backshore condition and human impacts

2. Obtaining a bulk sample from a 30 metre stretch of beach in the upper tidal region

3. Condensing the sample by using three successively finer screens, winnowing in a dishpan, scooping into sample jars and adding preservative and labels

4. Data collection including characteristics of the sample station, tides, weather, photos and sketches of the area

The samples and the data sheets are then sent to Ramona who does the analysis of the samples and records the data. Any positive samples are recorded in the Forage Fish Atlas.

Winter, 2016
Forage Fish Monitoring at Irene Bay

PICA's Forage Fish Monitoring team was down at Irene Bay on Friday, January 15, 2016 taking samples of the gravel and sand  between the high and low tide marks to check for surf smelt eggs.  The Bay has been identified as having the right kind of habitat for forage fish looking for a place to spawn.  There is eel grass offshore and at least half of the shoreline has overhanging vegetation which not only helps protect the sand and the water close to the shore from temperature extremes, but also provides the insects that the juvenile fish eat as part of their diet.  This was our second visit to Irene Bay.  We will be monitoring more Pender beaches in the following weeks and months.  If you see people with tapes and buckets and clipboards, that's us.  New volunteers are always welcome.  Come over and find out more about these wonderful little fish that are at the bottom of the food chain which ends with our orcas.

Winter, 2015
Forage Fish Monitoring at Shark Cove

The Forage Fish Monitors met on Monday, February 9th at Shark Cove to take samples.  Shark Cove is a new beach for the Pender Island Forage Fish monitors.  The beach is largely composed of shell fragments over a sand base.  Shark Cove is really two pocket beaches, so we took samples from both beaches to send to Ramona for testing.  Shark Cove is on the list as a possible forage fish spawning beach.  Perhaps it will join Medicine Beach and Mortimer Spit as spawning beaches for sand lance or surf smelt.

Feb 9 2015 Shark Cove 009
Feb 9 2015 Shark Cove 015
Feb 9 2015 Shark Cove 020
Feb 9 2015 Shark Cove 030
Feb 9 2015 Shark Cove 035

Summer, 2014
Forage Fish Monitoring at James Point beach

On Thursday, September 4th, a group of PICA Forage Fish volunteers went to James Point beach at the end of MacKinnon Road to take samples.  Since Medicine Beach and Mortimer Spit have both tested positive for forage fish, we are starting to monitor other Pender beaches, such as James Point, Hamilton Beach, and Bricky Bay to see if forage fish are also spawning there.  The next monitoring is scheduled for early October.  Check back to see which beach we will be monitoring next.  Volunteers are always welcome.


All photos by Rhondda

Photographs of 2013 Medicine Beach forage fish monitoring
Photographs of 2012 Medicine Beach forage fish monitoring
Photographs of 2011 Medicine Beach forage fish monitoring

Forage Fish Spawning on Pender Islands Confirmed

January 10, 2014 - Marine biologist Ramona de Graaf processed 
samples for her study of 
forage fish spawning. 
Medicine Beach tested 
positive for winter smelt;
Mortimer Spit tested 
positive for Pacific sand lance.

Contact John Ruiz if you would like to participate in this project.