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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


The Sand Lance: Small Fish with a Big Role

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, fish, sand lance, wildlife, ecology, Crosscurrents North,

Northern sand lance

Charismatic megafauna such as polar bears, wolves, and whales need advocates—but who will speak up for the sand lance, a diminutive fish that burrows into the seabed? Marine ecologist Martin Robards does, writing in the literary anthology Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment (Snowy Owl Books, 2008) about the ecological importance of the sand lance, a “keystone species” that occupies an important role in the oceans’ food chain:

Reduced in stature but not importance by their generic name of “forage” or “bait,” these fish are among the unsung heroes of our oceans … a sleek spear-shaped fish with a steely blue back and silver belly, rarely exceeding much more than eight inches and about as thick as a pinky finger.

When the tide goes out in the sand lance’s shallow-water habitat, Robards notes, the fish will burrow down and wait for the water to return—a practice that leaves them vulnerable to savvy predators like ravens, bears, and gulls, who know how to find and dig them up. But when the tide is in, sand lance can fall prey to swimming birds such as puffins and cormorants and to fish such as salmon, pollock, and flounder. Writes Robards:

Living on the junction between land, sea, and air makes sand lance available to more hungry creatures than may seem fair. It also places them in the path of all that is spilled and dumped, and disturbances that can render their precious sand refuges unusable. Although these steely lances that live life on the edge of everything are the embodiment of “littleness,” we need to care about them and their part in the vastness of the oceans. They are the real deal, sustaining everything from the mighty leviathan to murrelets deep in coastal rainforests to farmer’s fields in Europe and Japan [where they are used as fertilizer]. They epitomize everything that is important because, as a keystone species, they cannot be replaced.

Sand lance and their close relatives, which are sometimes known as sand eels or candlefish, live in many of the world’s oceans. They are seldom part of human diets, notes Robards, but he has heard of Alaskans rolling them in flour and spices, deep-frying them, and enjoying a tasty serving of “french fries with eyes.”

Source: Crosscurrents North

Public domain image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.