- Associated Press - Sunday, February 15, 2015

BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Puget Sound’s little fish - the kind that school together near the shore - don’t have the celebrity status of salmon or orcas. But as the populations of herring, smelt and other forage fish dwindle, so too may the sound’s more iconic species.

A bill by state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, aims to improve what state regulators readily admit is a poor understanding of the small fish that serve as prey for the sound’s larger predators.

“Forage fish populations are plummeting, and the general belief is that this may be why some marine bird populations are plummeting, and why the salmon are smaller and the orca whales are hungry,” Rolfes said.

Senate Bill 5166 would initiate the most comprehensive study of forage fish ever undertaken in Puget Sound. It would also require a recreational fishing license for smelt, a species typically caught with dip nets near the shore.

The bill would require the state Department of Fish & Wildlife and state Department of Natural Resources to collaborate on an ambitious survey to determine where surf smelt and sand lance spawn. The survey would be assisted by volunteers and crews of military veterans employed by the Washington Conservation Corps.



Fish and Wildlife also would be required to conduct a trawl survey in open water to gauge the survival rate of adult forage fish.

The bill budgets about $2 million for two years of survey work.

Requiring a fishing license for smelt would help Fish & Wildlife track where and how much smelt is being caught.

“This is a low-cost way of getting information about the smelt population,” Rolfes said.

A license hasn’t been required because smelt was considered plentiful and not especially popular with fishers.

The bill is backed by Fish & Wildlife, DNR and several environmental and sport fishing groups.

“This bill fills a very discrete need,” said Fish & Wildlife research biologist Dayv Lowry.

He added that the state has “no method for tracking” forage fish populations.

“This fills some very important holes in our fish management,” he said.

A few localized surveys indicate that forage fish populations have declined precipitously. A survey near Bellingham showed herring stock had fallen from 15,000 tons in 1973 to about 1,000 tons in 2012. State scientists say herring stocks are also declining in average size and age. The causes are not yet known, but researchers say a broad range of factors may be to blame, including chemical contamination, oil spills, parasites, disease, lack of food and increasing shoreline development.

More anglers are seeing the impact of fewer forage fish.

“What is a cause for concern for commercial and sport fishermen is that the average size of salmon has - in the last decade - decreased dramatically,” said Carl Burke, a lobbyist with the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Sound Action, the Coastal Conservation Association and the National Audubon Society’s Washington chapter are among the environmental groups that have spoken in favor of the bill.

Trina Bayard, Audubon Washington’s bird conservation director, said marine bird populations have declined steeply over the last 30 years. Especially hard-hit have been the birds that prey on forage fish, she said.

Declining forage fish populations will hamper the state’s burgeoning outdoor recreation industry, she said, citing a recent study commissioned by the Legislature that estimated wildlife watching and photography generates about $5.2 million per year in Washington.

“This is a large concern for rural areas and coastal towns where birders go to see birds,” she said. The study estimated that wildlife watchers spend an average of $38 per day on food, lodging other costs.

A similar bill Rolfes proposed last year failed to gain traction in the Senate. Momentum appears to be building this year. The bill is set for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

“I’m working hard to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the mix,” Rolfes said. “It’s one of the more important environmental bills we have in the Legislature this year.”

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Information from: Kitsap Sun, https://www.kitsapsun.com/

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