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NOAA Fisheries Designates Critical Habitat For ESA-Listed Pacific Smelt; Most Within Lower Columbia
Posted on Friday, October 21, 2011 (PST)

NOAA’s Fisheries Service on Thursday announced that more than a dozen West Coast creeks and rivers, and their estuaries, have been designated under the Endangered Species Act as critical habitat for the southern population of Pacific smelt, also known as eulachon.


Those rivers include the Columbia River and several of its tributaries.


Pacific smelt are small ocean-going fish that historically ranged from northern California to Alaska’s Bering Sea. The agency listed the fish as a threatened species under the ESA early last year. The critical habitat designation is a requirement of the federal species-protection law.


Though the designation is for the single species, it will provide benefits to other listed species that share the habitat's range, including salmon, steelhead, bull trout and green sturgeon, according to NOAA Fisheries.


Once areas are designated as critical habitat, new federal projects or permits and new projects with federal funding are required to ensure their actions do not adversely modify the fish’s habitat. Designating critical habitat does not affect citizens engaged in activities on private land that do not involve a federal agency.


Based on prior ESA consultation records, the federal agency estimates the annual net economic impact of Section 7 critical habitat requirements will be $487,300. Additional administrative costs of considering eulachon critical habitat in future ESA Section 7 consultations are expected in designated critical habitat areas.


“However, incremental project modification efforts for eulachon critical habitat are considered to be unlikely for most areas,” the agency’s economic analysis says. The greatest estimated costs are “anticipated to be associated with consultations on water supply and dam operations, along with mining and forest management activities.” The designation may have some effect on lower Columbia dredging material disposal activities. The dredging, mostly guided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is intended to facilitate navigation.


“NOAA Fisheries is currently considering proposals for research on the locations of eulachon spawning sites. Depending on the outcome of this research, NOAA Fisheries may request project modifications to dredge material disposal activity in some areas,” the Oct. 11 economic report says. “Impacts are thought to be limited to disposal activity currently occurring in shallow water areas, which is already quite limited in the Lower Columbia, representing approximately five percent of annual disposal volume.”


Although the designated areas – including the Klamath, Columbia and Umpqua rivers – comprise some 335 miles of habitat, there will be few changes to federal actions because these areas overlap critical habitat already designated for federally protected salmon, steelhead and bull trout.


The critical habitat designation includes the lower part of the Mad River, Redwood Creek and the Klamath River in California, the Umpqua River and Tenmile Creek on Oregon’s coast, and the Quinault and Elwha rivers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. But most of the designation is within the lower Columbia River basin.


The lower Columbia River and its tributaries support the largest known spawning run of eulachon. The mainstem of the lower Columbia River provides spawning and incubation sites, and a large migratory corridor to spawning areas in the tributaries. Major tributaries of the Columbia River that have supported eulachon runs in the past include the Grays, Elochoman, Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis Rivers in Washington and the Sandy River in Oregon.


The critical habitat designation includes the lower 143.2 miles of the lower Columbia, 12.4 miles of the Sandy, 4.8 miles of the Grays, 11.1 miles of Skamokawa, 5.2 miles of the Elochoman, 50.2 miles of the Cowlitz, 6.6 miles of the Toutle, 7.8 miles of the Kalama, 19.3 miles of the Lewis and 5.7 miles of the East Fork of the Lewis River.


Pacific smelt typically spend three to five years in saltwater before they begin returning to rivers to spawn in late winter through early spring. The Pacific smelt population has declined throughout its range, and NOAA Fisheries’ status reviews found further declines are expected as climate change affects the availability of the Pacific smelt’s prey, as well as the timing and volume of spring flows in Northwest rivers.


Other threats to the fish include being caught as bycatch in commercial fisheries, and predation by other fish, birds and marine mammals. Commercial and recreational fishing for Pacific smelt ended in 2010.


Smelt were described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806 during the Corps of Discovery; he lauded the fatty fish for their excellent taste. Historically, they played an important role in the culture of Northwest Indian tribes, representing a seasonally important food source and a valuable trade item. They are so high in body fat during spawning that they can be dried, strung on a wick and burned, lending another name to its list of aliases: candlefish.


A full description of the critical habitat designation is in the Federal Register, available with other supporting materials on the web at:


The conservation group Oceana said the government ruling is a step in the right direction, but emphasizes that the failure to designate critical habitat in ocean waters is a major shortcoming and a threat to the recovery of this species.


“It is irresponsible of the agency to ignore the best available science showing that eulachon live the vast majority of their lives in coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean,” said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana.  “The agency’s own reports document the distribution of eulachon from research surveys and observed bycatch in commercial fisheries – yet they just chose to ignore this.”


“The bycatch of threatened eulachon is a major impact to the species that must be stopped through a combination of time and area closures, hard bycatch caps, and gear modifications,” says Enticknap. “It’s also a major source of data showing the location of eulachon at sea that the agency should have used to designate critical habitat.”


For more information, see:


CBB, Nov. 19, 2010 “Population Crash, ESA Listing, Leads To Smelt Fishing Ban In Columbia River Basin”


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