Citizen Science Opportunity: Forage Fish Monitoring

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Since 2012, a team of PICA volunteers have been involved in a citizen science project monitoring beaches of Pender Island, and would be happy to have you join them.

Forage fish are small species of fish at the lower end of the food chain. They are vital to our marine ecosystems, providing a crucial source of food for other marine creatures, and without them, the survival of larger fish and mammals--including such iconic species as salmon, orcas and grizzly bears--would be in jeopardy.




The most frequently observed forage fish in our waters are the Pacific Sand Lance and the Surf Smelt. These wee fish are very vulnerable to overfishing, climate change, habitat loss, and changing ocean chemistry. Chemical or oil spills from the land and sea can destroy eggs incubating on the beaches. Of course, 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 using seawalls; altering shorelines with docks etc.; removal of the vegetation that provides shade and cooling and is habitat for the insects that feed juveniles; and removal of logs that prevent shoreline erosion.

Monitors take samples and record data at beaches that have appropriate characteristics for forage fish spawning. These samples are then studied for evidence of forage fish eggs and thus verify spawning activity. There was great excitement in 2014 when positive samples were found for winter smelt at Medicine Beach, and for sand lance at Mortimer Spit. The winter smelt finding was especially thrilling as it is so rare an occurrence. Both depend on nearshore habitat for their survival, but also require eelgrass beds and kelp forests for rearing their juveniles.




Monitoring takes place on the nearshore, and consists of selection of sites, collecting bulk samples of beach material which are screened three times using successively finer screens, scooping into sample jars and adding preservatives and labels. Data collected includes: characteristics of the sample station, tides, weather, photos and sketches of the area. The samples and the data sheets are then sent to biologist Ramona de Graaf, who analyzes the samples and records the data. Any positive samples are then recorded in the Forage Fish Atlas.


Monitoring is an interesting process. Should you be beach walking and encounter a group of people with long measuring tapes, scoops, buckets and assorted filters, and some look like they are doing the hula while swishing a dishpan in front of themselves, chances are you are seeing a group of forage fish monitors!


The Pender Islands Conservancy Association is very thankful to our wonderful volunteers without whom this research could not take place. New volunteers are most welcome. For more information the project team leader, Jon Ruiz (250-629-3748).

If you cannot volunteer, you can still help by assisting in caring for our beaches and encouraging others to do so. You can remove litter you see when you walk the beach, pick up after your pet, and refrain from driving on the beach, moving logs, or otherwise disturbing the beach surface under which the forage fish spawn. Although serious disturbance of beaches, such as driving over them to launch boats, greatly impact their survival, light use, such as beach walking, does little or no damage to the hatching process.

Elizabeth Miles and Eleanor Brownlee

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