Fishing for Columbia River eulachon (smelt) this year is not likely to be an option with the states of Oregon and Washington together expected to rescind the mainstem commercial fishery scheduled annually under permanent regulations from Dec. 1 through March 31.
The states individually have either closed or will close smelt-targeted sport or commercial fisheries in the Columbia and its tributaries because of the shrunken numbers of fish, and the fact that NOAA Fisheries Service (also known as NMFS) on May 17 listed the eulachon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“Due to the recent listing, it is highly unlikely the National Marine Fisheries Service would support fisheries with direct take of eulachon; therefore, the states are proposing to close all eulachon-directed fisheries,” according to a Joint Staff Report prepared for a Monday (Nov. 23) meeting of the Columbia River Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries. The Compact is made up of representatives of the Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife directors.
Commercial landings of smelt from 1938-1992 were in the millions of pounds annually but annual returns from the Pacific soon after began to dwindle. In 1993, smelt strayed to many Washington coastal streams and bays due to cold Columbia River water temperature, and only 500,000 pounds were landed in the Columbia River basin. Landings in 1994 were only 43,000 pounds, and beginning in 1995, fishery restrictions were enacted.
After a brief rebound early this decade the annual returns continued to drop precipitously. Since 2004 both commercial and recreational smelt fisheries have been managed at the most conservative level outlined in the 2001 Washington and Oreogn Eulachon Management Plan.
Smelt fishing last year was dismal. A total mainstem catch of 3,600 pounds was reported from twice-a-week fisheries that occurred from Jan. 1 through March 10.
The only tributary in Washington open to either sport or commercial fishing last year was the Cowlitz, where minimal catch and effort was reported. The Sandy River in Oregon was open seven days per week to commercial fishing but no smelt were landed last year. No recreational catch was reported in the Sandy either.
Eulachon smelt annually return to the Columbia River, at 3, 4, and 5 years of age, to spawn in the mainstem Columbia River and its tributaries downstream of Bonneville Dam. The fish typically enter the Columbia River in early to mid-January, though a small ‘pilot’ run may occur in December. Smelt typically spawn every year in the Cowlitz River, with inconsistent runs and spawning events occurring in the Grays, Elochoman, Lewis, Kalama, and Sandy rivers. Peak tributary abundance is usually in February, with variable abundance through March, and an occasional showing in April.
The recreational smelt fishery is a longstanding fishery that occurs almost exclusively in tributaries using dip net gear. Prior to 1997, the recreational fishery in Washington tributaries was open seven days per week the entire year, according to 2010 Sturgeon-Smelt Joint Staff Report. Smelt dippers in Washington were allowed 20 pounds per person each day, but beginning in late 1998 the limit has sometimes been ten pounds per person.
The listing determination said that NOAA Fisheries had "identified changes in ocean conditions due to climate change as the most significant threat to eulachon and their habitats" and that climate-induced change to freshwater habitats is a moderate threat.
The agency’s review also concluded that Pacific smelt are vulnerable to being caught in shrimp fisheries in the United States and Canada because the areas occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap.
The federal agency said other threats to the fish include water flows in the Klamath and Columbia River basins and bird, seal and sea lion predation, especially in Canadian streams and rivers.
A team of biologists from NOAA’s Fisheries Service and two other federal agencies concluded last year that there are at least two Pacific smelt distinct population segments on the West Coast. The one listed extends from the Mad River in northern California north into British Columbia.
According to the Nov. 23 fact sheet, the states will be working with NMFS in developing and expanding research activities to provide information on adult and juvenile eulachon abundances and distribution.