A Small Forage Fish, Sand lance, Should Command Greater Notice, Researchers Say

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A team led by marine ecologist Michelle Staudinger at the Northeast CASC is bringing an increased focus to sand lance, a small forage fish, and their ecological role in the Gulf of Maine and northwest Atlantic Ocean. The region’s waters are facing increased pressure and risks from climate change, fishing, and offshore wind energy development.

Read the original article published by Science Daily.

Pacific sand lance in a sieve from a purse seine in Prince William Sound

Sand lance in a sieve that were captured in a small purse seine.

(Credit: Sarah Schoen, USGS. Public domain.)

The sand lance plays a big role as a forage fish for puffins, terns and other seabirds, humpback whales and other marine mammals, and even bigger fish such as Atlantic sturgeon, cod, and bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Maine and northwest Atlantic Ocean. According to Michelle Staudinger, Science Coordinator for the Northeast CASC and lead author of a new synthesis on sand lance, two species, American and Northern sand lance, are “unique among forage fish because of their elongate body shape and hiding behaviors. Their shape makes them very attractive to many predators because they're easy to swallow. Most marine predators don't chew their food, rather they swallow their food whole."

However, scientists know far too little about sand lance biology and populations to reliably inform management. They’re difficult to catch in marine survey nets, so there’s little information on their abundance and distribution. To begin to address this need, Staudinger and collaborators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary held a workshop in 2017 that brought together 15 state and federal agencies, universities, and nonprofits. The goal of the workshop was to synthesize available data on the life history, behavior, distribution, feeding ecology, threats and vulnerabilities, and ecosystem services role of sand lance in the northwest Atlantic. The results of this effort are synthesized in a new paper out in Fish and Fisheries. Dave Wiley of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary says, “sand lance are a key ingredient in the sanctuary's productivity. The more we know and understand about this forage fish the better equipped we will be to conserve and protect marine species that depend on this critical food source."

This study was funded in part by the NE CASC project “How and Why is the Timing and Occurrence of Seasonal Migrants in the Gulf of Maine Changing Due to Climate?”. This study was also supported by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA/Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Boston University, and others.

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