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Posted on Friday, March 14, 2008 (PST)

The NOAA Fisheries Service announced this week that it is formally accepting a petition from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to list eulachon (smelt) populations in Washington, Oregon and California for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The tribe's petition describes severe declines in smelt runs along the entire Pacific Coast, with possible local extinctions in California and Oregon. Most eulachon production in the portion of the species' range that lies south of the U.S.-Canada border originates in the Columbia River Basin.

The petition says the populations warrant delineation as an ESA "distinct population segment," or perhaps more than one DPS, because the United States and Canada differ in their regulatory control of commercial, recreational and tribal eulachon harvest, and differ in their management of smelt habitat. The ESA defines the term species to include a subspecies or a DPS of any vertebrate species that interbreeds when mature.

The tribe also presented status information "underscoring that eulachon populations from California to southeastern Alaska have declined in the past 20 years, especially since the mid 1990s," according to NOAA. "In particular, the petitioner expressed concern about declines in the Columbia River."

The petition blames the decline on habitat loss and degradation (altered flows and increased siltation in spawning rivers, pollution), overharvest, and global climate change.

Eulachon, also called smelt or sometimes candlefish, are small, ocean-going fish that historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea. Smelt typically spend three to five years in saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn in late winter through mid spring.

Recreational fishers catch smelt in dip nets, and typically fry and eat them whole. Smelt are a culturally significant species to native tribes, traditionally representing a seasonally important food source and a valuable trade item.

Columbia River smelt was first described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806 during the Corps of Discovery. He lauded the fatty fish for their excellent taste.

NOAA found that the petition presented substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted, a requirement for initiating a review to determine is listing is warranted.

NOAA Fisheries Service received the petition in November 2007. The federal agency denied a July 1999 smelt petition, saying that it had not been presented with the needed "substantial scientific and commercial information…" to establish smelt DPS.

Within the Columbia River basin, the major and most consistent spawning runs occur in the mainstem of the Columbia River (from just upstream of the estuary, river mile 25, to immediately downstream of Bonneville Dam, RM 146 and in the Cowlitz River, according to a Federal Register notice of the NOAA Fisheries review published Wednesday. Periodic spawning also occurs in the Grays, Skamokawa, Elochoman, Kalama, Lewis, and Sandy rivers (tributaries to the Columbia River).

Other river basins in the U.S. where eulachon have been documented include the Sacramento River, Russian River, Humboldt Bay and several nearby smaller coastal rivers (e.g., Mad River), and the Klamath River in California; the Rogue River and Umpqua Rivers in Oregon; and infrequently in coastal rivers and tributaries to Puget Sound in Washington.

Although eulachon abundance exhibits considerable year-to-year variability, the petition notes that nearly all spawning runs from California to southeastern Alaska have declined in the past 20 years, particularly since the mid-1990s. It says that from 1938 to 1992, the median commercial catch of eulachon in the Columbia River was approximately 1.9 million pounds. From 1993 to 2006, the median catch had declined to approximately 43,000 pounds, representing a 97.7 percent reduction in catch from the earlier period.

An increasing trend in Columbia River eulachon catch emerged in 2000-2003, but recent catches have fallen. The preliminary catch data for the 2008 Columbia River eulachon run suggest it may be the second lowest on record.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fishery officials took a conservative approach in setting harvests this year, limiting smelt dipping on the Cowlitz River to one day a week through March 29. All other tributaries to the Columbia River in Washington state were to remain closed to smelt fishing until further notice.

Of less concern is the sport fishery for smelt on the lower Columbia River, where a scarcity of bank access and the dispersal of spawning locations limits catch rates. That fishery opened New Year's Day and is scheduled to run seven days per week through March 31.

A Dec. 14 WDFW press release stressed the fact that smelt returns tend to be variable and populations now seem to be in a period of low abundance with low counts the past three years. Oregon and Washington officials believe poor ocean conditions are a likely factor in the current downturn. A growing presence of California and Steller sea lions, which prey on smelt, in the lower Columbia may also be a factor.

"Pacific climate changes observed from late 1998 through early 2002 indicate favorable productivity in the coastal waters where eulachon migrate," according to the Dec. 3 ODFW-WDFW joint staff report. "These conditions especially during the first year of ocean residency, would improve larvae-spawner survival rates. The increased eulachon returns to the Columbia River during 2001-2003 support this hypothesis; however, this relationship did not hold true during 2004-2007.

"Warmer ocean conditions since late 2002 probably had greater impacts on survival of the 1000-2002 broods than anticipated. These unfavorable ocean conditions are likely to impact the survival of the 2003-2005 broods that will comprise the 2008 run," the staff report says.

Commercial landings in 2005, 2006 and 2007 were the lowest, fifth lowest and second lowest recorded since 1938, according to the joint staff report.

The federal agency is soliciting information on the viability of, and threats to, West Coast eulachon, as well as information about efforts being made to protect the species, and the names of potential peer reviewers.

NOAA's Fisheries Service will assemble a team of experts to examine in detail the health of smelt populations along the coast and the causes for the apparent declines.

This fall the agency could propose ESA protection for some or all of these smelt populations. A formal proposal would be followed by a year-long period of peer review, public comment and public hearings before any final decision about official ESA listing is made.

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