Surf Smelt
Sand Lance
Native Plants
Bald Eagle
Harbor Seal
Sand lance. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW. Sand Lance
Ammodytes hexapterus  
The sand lance, also known locally as the "candlefish," is an ecologically important forage fish throughout Puget Sound. Sand lances school in many bays and inlets in the inside waters. Sand lance are important food for young salmon; 35% of juvenile salmon diets are composed of sand lance. Juvenile chinook salmon depend on sand lance for 60% of their diet. Minke whales, other marine mammals, and many species of seabirds also prey on sand lance.

Sand Lance Spawning Beaches

140 miles of sand lance spawning beaches are known to exist along Puget Sound. The beach spawning habits of sand lance were not known in Puget Sound prior to 1989. Many potential sand lance spawning areas remain to be surveyed.

Sand lance spawn on the beach. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW.
Sand lance spawn is almost invisible on beaches.
Sand lance beaches known on Puget Sound.
Spawning On Sand

Sand lance spawning occurs at high tide in shallow water on sand-gravel beaches. Sand lances will also use sand beaches for spawning. Surf smelt, another forage fish which spawns on Puget Sound beaches, generally avoid sand beaches for spawning. However, on many gravel beaches, the eggs of winter-spawning surf smelt stocks and sand lance may be found incubating together in the same sediments.

At the moment of spawning, sand lance eggs often take on a coat of attached sand grains, making them nearly invisible ­ which may explain why sand lance spawning activity went unnoticed on Puget Sound beaches until recently.

Sand lance eggs. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW.
Sand lance eggs.

After hatching, larval sand lances enter the plankton, and are common in many bays and inlets in Puget Sound during the late winter and spring. Juvenile sand lances rear in nearshore waters along Puget Sound during the summer. Although many sand lance spawning beaches are known, the life history and population biology of sand lances in Puget Sound is unknown.

Sand Lance spawning beach, Miller Bay Spit. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW.
Sand lance spawning beach, tip of Miller Bay Spit, Kitsap County.

Development Can Damage
Sand Lance Spawning Areas

Because sand lance spawn in the intertidal zone of the Puget Sound shoreline, local spawning populations are vulnerable to shoreline development. Construction of bulkheads and other shoreline armoring can bury the upper intertidal zone. Bulkheads and other armoring may also damage spawning habitat by causing increased erosion and interruption of sediment transport.

The spawning habitat of sand lance is considered a "marine habitat of special concern" in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) Hydraulic Code Rules. All proposed shoreline construction activities will be reviewed by state agencies for impacts to the spawning habitat of sand lance and other species. In cases where no satisfactory redesign or mitigation is possible, a Hydraulic Permit may be denied.

Permit applicants may be required to:  
  • Produce resource/habitat surveys before construction.
  • Redesign projects to reduce impacts.
  • Follow restrictions on seasonal timing of in-water work.
  • Provide mitigation for impacts of permitted work.

Saving Sand Lance
Spawning Areas

  • Consider alternatives to bulkheads and other hard shoreline armoring structures.
  • As a shoreline property owner, do your best to preserve fish and wildlife habitat. Learn about the marine life on your beach and the shoreline processes at work.
Sand Lance photos by Dan Penttila, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Related Topics

Bulkheads and Change, Bulkheads can change the beach.
Bulkheads, Bulkheads can increase erosion.

Related Links

Marine Beach Spawning Fish Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Includes information on sand lance research.

Fisheries Management: Saltwater Forage Fish,  Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Includes link to Forage Fish Management Plan.

Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Answers to frequently asked questions about shoreline construction and HPA approval.

Current Hydraulic Code Rules on Bulkheads, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. These Hydraulic Code Rules apply to the construction of bulkheads for single-family residences on saltwater shores.  

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