Sandlance in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

November 2017

Why are sandlance, a tiny forage fish, so important in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary? Find out in this video by sanctuary volunteer and Emerson College student Casey Dalager!


So this morning we left out of Plymouth Harbor which is about 20 miles south of the busy port of Boston and we left and came out about 17 nautical miles until we got out here.

So we're running around 10 knots due to right whale season so it took us a little over an hour and a half, almost two hours to get out.

Really where we came today was the southwest corner of the sanctuary.

So today we have a bunch of different projects going on but in part the thing that's all brought us together is just trying to understand forage fish, in particularly the sandlance, or sand eels, as the fishermen like to call them.

Sandlance, they're about this long and would be a little bit thicker or thinner than my pinky.

They're the main forage species for whales, seabirds, and other fish.

They're not technically endangered, on the endangered species list, but they are threatened by man-made, human-induced pressures.

As some people know, the Gulf of Maine, which is where Stellwagen Bank is, has experienced some of the largest changes in climate, especially when it comes to ocean temperatures.

We're having warming almost more than anywhere else in the world right now.

And what that could mean for very finicky sandlance is to where they want to be due to ocean temperatures could really change.

If you wiped out the sandlance on Stellwagen, it's not like you could just go off Stellwagen and find sandlance.

They're really highly concentrated on Stellwagen and only one or two other places in the Gulf of Maine.

So they're very important for everything that comes here.

We could see a collapse of different types of fish, we could certainly see a lot less whales move offshore and as well as the seabirds in here.

We really don't know what would actually happen, that's certainly something that we're working on very hard to figure out but it would certainly be, we believe, disastrous.

Sandlance are a really tricky fish.

We're starting this project because they're really hard to catch and study and there's not a lot known about them, even though they might arguably be the most important species that we have in the sanctuary.

We have people involved in the project from the University of Connecticut, USGS down in Woods Hole, we also have some folks involved from Boston University, and the list goes on and on.

When you bring in scientists that have all sorts of different interests, from the geologists with their focus on the sediments and sand grain, to the plankton to the sort of the adult fish ecologist, we start to get a much clearer picture of what's going on.

It's really hard when you're out here on the water sometimes to think about what's below us, so this is our only way to be able to peel back the water and look and see what the surface sort of looks like the bottom.

And it's not just helping sandlance, it's helping the entire ecosystem.

If you care about whales, you should care about sandlance.

If you care about bluefin tuna, you should care about sandlance.

If you care about birds, beautiful puffins for example, you should care about sandlance.

Everything has to eat and if something happens to their prey, their food, then you're really affecting that species.

If sandlance were kind of on their own, doing their own little thing without anything eating them, you probably wouldn't care about them.

But they're so important in the ecosystem that we have to care.