Surf Smelt
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3 year old non-spawning female surf smelt. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW. Surf Smelt
Hypomesus pretiosus

Surf smelt are a schooling fish found in shallow nearshore waters along Puget Sound. Adult surf smelt feed on plankton and in turn become food for seabirds, marine mammals, and a variety of fishes including salmon.

Surf smelt spawning beach, Vashon Island. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW.
Surf smelt spawning beach, upper intertidal zone, Vashon Island.

Spawning On The Beach

Surf smelt spawn in the upper intertidal zones of mixed sand and gravel beaches, generally within a few feet of the high tide line. Spawning takes place year round on beaches along Whidbey Island, Camano Island, Semiahmoo Bay, Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay, Sinclair Inlet, the San Juan Islands, and the outer coast of the Olympic peninsula. Fall and winter spawning occurs along Liberty Bay, Port Orchard, Quartermaster Harbor, southern Hood Canal, and southern Puget Sound. Summer spawning occurs along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Surf Smelt Spawning Beaches

  • Over 200 miles of surf smelt spawning beaches are known to exist along Puget Sound.

  • Surf smelt spawning beaches are often located at the heads of bays or inlets shaded by trees and bluffs. Shade moderates beach surface temperatures and helps summer-spawned eggs survive to hatching.

  • Many sand and gravel beaches have yet to be surveyed for evidence of surf smelt spawning activity.

  • Surf smelt spawning beaches known in Puget Sound.

    Eggs are Laid at High Tide

    Ripening surf smelt move in close to the water's edge at high tide for spawn deposition. Adhesive eggs about 1 millimeter in diameter are laid on the surface of the beach. Subsequent wave action covers the eggs with beach sediments.

    Surf smelt spawn on the beach. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW.
    Surf smelt spawn on beach.

    Juvenile Surf Smelt
    Use Nearshore Waters

    Larval surf smelt enter the nearshore plankton after hatching. Juvenile surf smelt linger and feed in shallow waters throughout Puget Sound. The majority of spawning surf smelt are two years of age, with some males maturing at one year of age.

    Surf smelt eggs. Photo by Dan Penttila, WDFW.
    Surf smelt eggs.

    Although surf smelt do not die after spawning, very few survive to be three or four years old. Surf smelt show great annual predictability in spawning sites and seasons, but the degree to which they "home" back to their beaches of their birth is unknown.

    Bulkheads May Damage
    Surf Smelt Spawning Areas

    Bulkheads and other shoreline "armoring" devices can damage surf smelt spawning beaches. Filling and bulkheading seaward far into the upper intertidal zone can bury and destroy surf smelt spawning habitat.

    Even on lightly armored beaches, wave action along the base of the structures may scour away fine-grained sediments. Armoring on long stretches of shoreline and conversion of natural streams to drainage culverts may remove sources of beach sediments to long shore drift systems. Beaches may gradually coarsen, eliminating essential surf smelt spawning substrate.

    The upper intertidal zones of beaches are important habitat for surf smelt and other species. All known surf smelt spawning sites have been given enhanced "no net loss" protection in the application of Washington Administrative Code (WAC) "Hydraulic Code Rules."

    Protecting Spawning Habitat:
    What You Can Do

    • Bulkheads may increase beach erosion and can destroy surf smelt spawning habitat. Consider alternatives to bulkhead construction.
    • Keep or maintain a buffer of native shrubs and trees along your beach.
    • Learn about the marine life on your beach. Get to know the habitats and shoreline processes at work.
    Surf Smelt 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 smelt 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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