Eulachon (smelt) “are a relatively poorly monitored species” say scientists who recently evaluated the population status of the small fish that grows to adulthood in the Pacific Ocean and returns to the Columbia River and other streams along the coast to spawn.
But that fact is changing due to research recently launched by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife and the Cowlitz Tribe, among others.
ODFW last year was awarded a three-year, $1.6 million grant to study eulachon smelt in Washington and Oregon in order to guide implementation of a monitoring program to track coast-wide status and trends in abundance and distribution.
Funding for the project over the three-year period would total $1.9 million when taking into account a required 20 percent in matching funds from the states, which will share the grant and carry out the research collaboratively.
The base funding comes from the Protected Species Cooperative Conservation program operated by NOAA Fisheries Service. The funding mechanism is called for under Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, which authorizes NMFS to enter into agreements with any state that establishes and maintains an "adequate and active" program for the conservation of endangered and threatened species.
Once a state enters into such an agreement, NMFS is authorized to assist in, and provide federal funding for, implementation of the state's conservation program.
The two state agencies are also collaborating with Washington’s Cowlitz Tribe, which received $811,306 in a 2010 grant award to do eulachon research in lower Columbia River tributaries. That grant, also for a three-year project period, is through NOAA Fisheries’ Species Recovery Grants to Tribes Program, which supports tribally led recovery efforts that directly benefit the eligible species under NMFS or joint NMFS-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction.
It was the Cowlitz Indian Tribe that in November 2007 petitioned NOAA Fisheries to list eulachon populations in Washington, Oregon and California.
The southern distinct population segment of eulachon was listed on May 17, 2010, by NOAA Fisheries as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Eulachon (commonly called Columbia River smelt, candlefish or hooligan) are endemic to the eastern Pacific Ocean, ranging from northern California to southwest Alaska and into the southeastern Bering Sea. Eulachon typically spend three to five years in saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn from late winter through mid-spring.
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. Other river basins in the United States where eulachon have been documented include the Mad River, Redwood Creek and the Klamath River in California; the Umpqua River in Oregon; and infrequently in coastal rivers (primarily the Quinault and Elwha rivers) in Washington.
The fish typically enter the Columbia River in early to mid-January, though a small “pilot” run may occur in December. Smelt return to fresh water at age 3, 4 and 5. Peak tributary abundance is usually in February, with variable abundance through March, and an occasional showing during April.
Eulachon typically spawn every year soon after arrival in lower Columbia and the Cowlitz River, with inconsistent runs and spawning events occurring in the Grays, Elochoman, Lewis and Kalama rivers in Washington and in Oregon’s Sandy River. Smelt are broadcast spawners preferring areas with a coarse sandy bottom. Females produce 20,000-60,000 eggs and the adults die following spawning. The adhesive eggs settle to the bottom, and incubate for about 30-40 days, depending on water temperature. Young smelt larvae -- about 4 millimeters in length -- then drift with the current to sea.
The funding will allow more expanded analysis of the species. The states’ smelt monitoring efforts have for the past 10 years or so have been funded annually at from $10,000 to $15,00, “which isn’t anything,” said WDFW researcher Olaf Langness.
“Nobody worries about those little sardines and smelt. Forage fish don’t get any respect as far as getting (research) money,” Langness said. But smelt have historically been an important link in the food chain, and favorite of humans as well.
With eulachon numbers low in recent years, predators such as sturgeon, seals and sea lions “have to go look for something else” to eat, Langness said.
“Sturgeon would follow them up the Cowlitz” River, Langness said of the smelt return to the Washington tributary to the lower Columbia.
An overall goal of the research is to track coastwide status and trends in abundance and distribution in order to better manage human-caused impacts and other threats to recovery of the eulachon smelt population.
“We’re funded enough to do a much more thorough job of it,” Langness said.
Researchers will develop and implement an annual eulachon spawning stock biomass estimate for the Columbia River that will allow managers to better track recovery and manage fishery impacts. Langness said they would use an index much like the one now used to estimate smelt spawning biomass the Fraser River in British Columbia.
“It’s an improvement over what we’ve done in the past,” Langness said.
WDFW and ODFW have historically based their Columbia River eulachon run-size estimates on several indicators, including the collection of emigrating smelt larvae averaged across stations and depths at selected index sites located below spawning areas in the mainstem Columbia River and key lower tributaries. WDFW and ODFW say in their project narrative that they need to triple their field collection efforts in order to implement biomass indexing method for estimating spawning populations.
That involves increasing the frequency of sampling at the Columbia mainstem sites significantly (from a sample collection three or four times a season, to a sample collection weekly throughout the two to three months of larvae outmigration). Langness says the indexing involves “back calculating,” to estimate how many spawners were needed to produce the existing larval densities.
‘Plankton tows” -- using small mesh netting – of now longer than a minute in length each are being used in the mainstem and tributaries to collect eggs and larvae. The sampling began in early March, 30 to 40 days after the first word came in that smelt were arriving from the ocean.
The researchers are also trying to better characterize current eulachon smelt distribution using egg and larvae surveys of known and potential spawning areas in the lower Columbia River, Columbia River tributaries, and coastal river systems of Oregon and Washington, to aid in determination of critical habitat for the DPS.
A related effort aims to assess the impacts of shrimp trawl operations on eulachon smelt by initiating an observer program to estimate the bycatch rates in Washington’s ocean shrimp trawl fishery. Another facet of the program led by the ODFW’s Robert Hannah is the development and testing of modifications to ocean shrimp trawls that reduces smelt bycatch. Mortality in trawls is considered one of the causes of a precipitous decline in smelt populations up and down the coast over the past two decades.
Another objective of the research is to assess the genetic makeup of spatial and temporal components of the Columbia River and Oregon/Washington coastal eulachon smelt runs.
ODFW also received a three-year Section 6 grant totaling $1,679,728 to fund both ODFW and WDFW work related to green sturgeon on the West coast of the United States. The Southern DPS of green sturgeon were listed as a threatened species on July 6, 2006.
Green sturgeon can be found in the near-shore and coastal estuaries of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, when not spawning in their natal streams in northern California and southern Oregon. They are most readily apparent during their summer-time aggregations in the major coastal estuaries (such as Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the Columbia River estuary).
The goal of the green sturgeon project is also to design a monitoring program to track coast-wide status and trends and better manage anthropogenic impacts and other threats to recovery of the North American green sturgeon population.
The expected outcomes from this project proposal are: an estimate of abundance of Northern and Southern DPS green sturgeon; a long-term monitoring and evaluation program established to track the status of green sturgeon; a better understanding of the spatial-temporal pattern of each DPS within the coastal estuaries; and a Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan for green sturgeon in the coastal fisheries not covered by biological opinions, according to the project narrative.