Pacific Sand Lance (Ammodytes hexapterus)
of Whatcom County's schooling forage fish, the Pacific Sand Lance,
as its name suggests, is distinguished by its slender sword-shaped
body, 5-8 inches in length. These fish feature a needle-like nose,
a thin dorsal fin along the length of the back, and silvery sides
with gray-green above. Known to some in the Puget Sound region as
"candlefish", elsewhere this name refers to another forage
fish, the eulachon.
The general range of the Pacific sand lance includes coastal areas
of the northern Pacific Rim from Baja California and the Sea of
Japan, north to Alaska and Arctic Canada. Schools of sand lance
are localized but widespread in the Puget Sound and the Strait of
Juan de Fuca. Efforts to locate spawning areas are ongoing, but
locations have been identified in the northern and southern reaches
of Whatcom County, including beaches at Point Roberts, Semiahmoo
Spit, Lummi Peninsula, Squalicum Harbor and Post Point.
fall, adult sand lance migrate to sandy-gravel beaches to spawn.
On high tides between early November and mid-February, eggs are
deposited in the upper intertidal areas. This was largely unknown
until 1989 when Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife
(WDFW) biologists discovered eggs disguised by sand grains adhering
to their surface. This sandy coating may also serve as vital protection
from disturbance and drying out at low tide during the four-week
incubation. Upon hatching, the larvae can be found drifting with
the plankton in many nearshore areas of Whatcom County.
every stage in its life cycle, the sand lance feeds on zooplankton
and, in turn, becomes valuable prey for salmon, sea birds, seals
and other marine animals, hence its classification as a "forage
fish." In the nearshore areas where planktonic larvae drift
in spring, juvenile sand lance school up in summer and continue
to feed on plankton, primarily copepods. Adult populations travel
to more open waters in large schools, but their movements and age
structures remain largely unknown.
As juveniles and adults, sand lance take on the peculiar habit
of burrowing in bottom sands at night for protection from predators.
Their long, flattened shape facilitates this burrowing behavior,
which is also an important part of their spawning ritual.
baitfish, the sand lance is now receiving special attention for
its value as an important forage fish. Studies have shown that sand
lance amount to 35% of the juvenile salmon diet - up to 60% for
Sand lance are especially rich in high-energy fats, particularly
in the spring as they bulk up on plankton blooms. For people that
have eaten these small fish, they are reportedly delicious.