States, federal agency discuss possibility of a smelt fishing season

Staff reportJanuary 26, 2014 

It has been three years since people have been able to dip for smelt on the Cowlitz River, Columbia River and its other tributaries. State fishery managers in Washington and Oregon are talking with federal officials about a possible season this year.

BILL WAGNER/THE DAILY NEWS FILE, 2008

Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon are discussing with the National Marine Fisheries Service the possibility of re-establishing smelt fisheries in the Columbia River.

The purpose of the fishing would be to gather adult catch-per-unit-effort data for monitoring the status of the population. The Columbia River return appears to have improved over the past three years, but that does not mean that other sectors of the population are recovering, according to Washington fish biologist Joe Hymer.

In May 2010, the Southern Distinct Population Segment eulachon were federally-listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This genetic group is composed of eulachon spawning in rivers from the Skeena River in British Columbia to the Mad River in Northern California, according to a news release from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Of the numerous streams and rivers in this region, the Columbia has the largest spawning run.

Following the threatened listing, Washington and Oregon have enacted permanent rules prohibiting directed harvest of smelt in the mainstem Columbia River and its tributaries. Commercial fishing closed permanently in December 2010 and recreational fishing closed permanently in January 2011.

In preparing their outlook for 2014, fishery managers are seeing a mix of positive and negative signs.

Positive abundance indicators for 2013-14 include: a modest improvement in eulachon larval densities during the winter of 2011; a relatively high level of age 1-plus bycatch during 2011, and a relatively high level of age 2-plus bycatch during 2012 in the Canadian ocean shrimp fisheries; and favorable ocean conditions during most of the ocean-phase for brood year 2009-2011 fish.

Negative indicators include: low mainstem Columbia River larval densities during the winters of 2009 and 2010; decreasing adult smelt biomass tonnage in the 2010-2012 Canadian ocean shrimp fisheries; warm ocean conditions during the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010; and weak adult landings for brood years 2009 and 2010.

The mixed bag of indicators does not readily point toward improving or declining returns in 2014, Hymer said. However, a similar mixed forecast was made for 2013, which ended up being one of best runs in a decade, so the 2014 run is forecasted to be similar to 2011 and 2012, but could be on par with 2013.

As of last week, smelt have been confirmed to be present in the Cowlitz and reported in the Grays rivers.

Whether this means people will be able to dip for smelt remains to be seen. According to the policy recommendations for eulachon conservation and fishery management from the Washington and Oregon Eulachon Management Plan, fishing is secondary to conservation.

According to the plan, the conservation policy calls for maintaining healthy populations of eulachon while assuring the integrity of the ecosystem and habitat upon which they depend.

Management actions will consider the role of eulachon in both the marine and freshwater ecosystems and the need to maintain sufficient populations of eulachon for proper ecosystem functioning, according to the policy.

A precautionary approach to resource management shall be utilized and managers will consider the best scientific information available and strive to improve the information base for eulachon.

The fishery management recommendations call for maintaining a commercial and recreational fishing opportunity in the lower Columbia River to include opportunities in both mainstem and tributaries for both fleets.

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