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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:

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:

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.