FIDALGO BAY — Holding up a jar filled with water and sand, students looked at roughly 400 tiny, white eggs floating inside — surf smelt at the very early stages of their lives.

The small fish, a kind of forage fish found in the shallow waters of Puget Sound, are an importance food source for many species, including salmon. Salmon, in turn, are the favorite food of Southern Resident orcas.

Several middle-school students in the Salish Sea School, which offers outdoor-based programs for youths, learned on Saturday the importance of forage fish in the marine food chain, and assisted with a forage fish egg survey on Fidalgo Bay.

The activity was held on Orca Recovery Day, in combination with dozens of other events around the Puget Sound to draw attention to the dwindling population of Southern Resident orcas.

Surf smelt spawn on beaches, and samples can be collected at low tide. Several longtime forage fish survey volunteers instructed the students on how to collect samples, and then analyze them under microscopes.

Eleven-year-old Sylvia Sibley said she had a new appreciation for what was on the beach.

”There are millions of surf smelt eggs that are so tiny, you can’t see them,” she said.

Longtime forage fish survey volunteer Pete Haase said the small, fatty fish provide an energy boost for animals higher on the food chain.

”They’re a big food source for salmon, and salmon are what Southern Resident orcas are in dire need of,” he said.

He said the forage fish surveys are conducted to measure the success of spawning, and which beaches offer better survival. The data is analyzed by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Haase said forage fish spawning beaches face threats from development.

After students collected samples on Saturday, they looked at the tiny, white fish eggs under a microscope.

”It was really cool to see them moving around,” said 12-year-old Athena Ward.

Later on Saturday, student leaders with the Salish Sea School were set to lead a virtual conference on Southern Resident orcas that featured several speakers. The two-day conference will continue next Saturday, Oct. 23.

Amy Eberling, executive director of the Salish Sea School, said the goals of the program are to teach K-12 students about marine life through hands-on learning and inspire them to take actions to protect it.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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