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NOAA Fisheries Proposes Lower Columbia River, Tributaries As Critical Habitat For Listed Smelt
Posted on Friday, January 07, 2011 (PST)

NOAA Fisheries announced Wednesday that it is proposing to designate as critical habitat for the southern distinct population segment of Pacific eulachon the lower Columbia River as well as 11 other waterways in California, Oregon and Washington.


The agency in March 2010 listed eulachon, otherwise known as Pacific smelt, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The ESA requires that critical habitat be designated for listed species.


The proposed areas are a combination of freshwater creeks and rivers and their associated estuaries, comprising approximately 292 miles of habitat.


Public meetings on the critical habitat proposal are scheduled Jan. 26, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel, 1000 NE Multnomah St., Portland, Ore.


Requests for additional public hearings should be made in writing by Feb. 22.


NOAA Fisheries is soliciting comments from the public on all aspects of the proposal, including information on the economic, national security, and other relevant impacts of the proposed designation, as well as the benefits to the southern DPS of eulachon from designation. It will consider additional information received prior to making a final designation.


The agency will consider and address all substantive comments received by 5 p.m., March 7. Details about the proposal and how comments can be submitted can be found at NOAA

Fisheries’ Northwest Region web site at


Eulachon are small ocean-going fish that historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. They return to rivers to spawn in late winter and early spring. Eulachon have historically played an important role in the culture of Northwest native tribes, representing a seasonally important food source and a valuable trade item.


In the portion of the species’ range that lies south of the U.S.-Canada border, most eulachon production originates in the Columbia River basin. Within the Columbia River basin, the major and most consistent spawning runs return to the mainstem of the Columbia River and the Cowlitz River in Washington. Spawning also occurs in other tributaries to the Columbia River, including the Grays, Elochoman, Kalama and Lewis rivers in Washington and Oregon’s Sandy River, according to the Jan. 5 Federal Register notice announcing the proposal.


Historically, the only other large river basins in the contiguous United States where large, consistent spawning runs of eulachon have been documented are the Klamath River in northern California and the Umpqua River in Oregon.


Eulachon have been found in numerous coastal rivers in northern California (including the Mad River and Redwood Creek), Oregon (including Tenmile Creek south of Yachats) and Washington (including the Quinault and Elwha Rivers).


Proposed for critical habiat are the lower 146 miles of the Columbia from Bonneville Dam down to the river mouth and the lower reaches of the Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis, Grays, Elochomon, Sandy, Mad, Elwha and Umqua rivers and Redwood and Tenmile creeks.


The Klamath (10.9 miles), Quinalt (3 miles) and a portion of the lower Elwha River smelt habitat (0.8 of 4.9 miles) were “excluded) from the proposed designation. Those areas have been proposed for exclusion because of the unique trust relationship between tribes and the federal government, the federal emphasis on respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance, and the importance of tribal participation in numerous activities aimed at conserving eulachon.


NOAA Fisheries estimates adding a critical habitat assessment to existing ESA Section 7 consultations would result in an annual net economic impact of $460,500. Once critical habitat is designated, federal agencies must ensure their actions are not likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat by engaging in official ESA consultation.


Those costs are relatively small because the proposed designations will overlap previous designations for listed salmon and steelhead stocks. The greatest costs are associated with federal activities related to dams and water supply, mining, and forest management.


The critical habitat requirements apply only to federal agency actions, and the latter only to habitat that has been designated. A critical habitat designation does not set up a preserve or refuge, and applies only when federal funding, permits, or projects are involved. Critical habitat requirements do not apply to citizens engaged in activities on private land that do not involve a federal agency.


The ESA defines critical habitat as specific areas: 1) within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing, if they contain physical or biological features essential to conservation, and those features may require special management considerations or protection; and 2) outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the agency determines that the area itself is essential for conservation.


NOAA Fisheries 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.


NOAA’s own scientific review found that this smelt stock is indeed declining throughout its range, and further declines are expected as climate change affects the availability of its prey. Climate change is also expected to change the timing and volume of spring flows in Northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful Pacific smelt spawning and these changes could have a negative effect on spawning success.


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 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.


Commercial landings of smelt from 1938-1992 were in the millions of pounds annually from the Columbia river and its tributaries. But by 1994 the catch had dropped to only 43,000 pounds and in 1995 fishery restrictions were enacted.


The species apparently enjoyed a brief rebound from 2001 through 2003, a year when more than a million pounds were harvested in the mainstem Columbia and in Oregon and Washington tributaries.


That total dipped to only 200 pounds in 2005 and annual harvests have been only marginally better since. The smelt "catch per unit of effort" by the commercial fleet in each of past five years has been among the lowest on record. Landings totaled 5,600 pounds in 2009 and recreational fishing was poor due to low abundance. In 2010 only 3,600 pounds were caught in the Columbia.

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