These little fish play a big role in Puget Sound’s health — and state’s economy

Congressman Denny Heck, D-Olympia, donned waders and rubber boots Tuesday afternoon to get a closer look at a statewide project that will help protect the health of Puget Sound.

Launched in 2014 by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the project targets the spawning habits of species called forage fish. These species, which include the Pacific sand lance and surf smelt, serve as food for larger organisms such as seabirds and salmon.

Forage fish play a critical role in the food chain. Their health directly affects the health of salmon — and ultimately the overall economic health of Washington. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the annual Puget Sound salmon harvest alone contributes nearly $1 billion to the state’s economy.

Heck and fellow Congressman Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, have introduced a bill called the Puget SOS Act (H.R. 3630) that would elevate the sound’s status under the Clean Water Act. The goal is to define Puget Sound as a nationally significant water body to ensure consistent federal funding for protecting its health.

A spokesperson for Heck said the bill has support from Washington state lawmakers, but would likely need an order from the Obama administration to become a reality. In 2009, a similar order was issued to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

Heck joined staffers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Conservation Corps on the shores of Eld Inlet to collect soil samples and tag fish Tuesday. The goal was to observe some of the actions underway to restore the sound’s health — and further strengthen his argument for supporting the bill in Congress.

“We’re trying to find the best way to get the federal government involved in Puget Sound water quality,” Heck said. “It’s a little less healthy every year.”

The forage fish spawn at high tides on Puget Sound’s beaches. Crews collect samples year-round and reach about 200 sites a month.

Many of the samples contain only a handful of microscopic eggs, but these eggs help biologists determine which spawning habitats need protection. One goal is to protect these habitats from destructive activity such as sediment removal or the installation of waterfront barriers known as bulkheads, for example.

Phillip Dionne, a research biologist with Fish and Wildlife, said the sample sites will be less than a mile apart — and will cover the entire Puget Sound — when the project is finished. The department already documents the spawning locations of these forage fish online and will likely start analyzing all data from the project next summer, Dionne said.

“This is really the first time anyone has sampled all of Puget Sound,” he said.

Aside from the salmon industry, Puget Sound also generates money through tourism. Heck’s office reports that Puget Sound drives about $9.5 billion in travel spending along with about 88,000 tourism-related jobs responsible for nearly $3 billion in income for Washington’s economy.