2015 Columbia smelt run expected to be lower than last year

A mixed forecast leads the fish biologists in Washington and Oregon to predict the 2015 Columbia River smelt run should be similar to the good runs of the past few years, but not as strong as the 2014 run.

Last year’s run was estimated at 16,600,000 pounds.

Even though some smelt have been caught in a Dec. 15-16 test on the Cowlitz River, all recreational and commercial fisheries remain closed.

The states continue discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) about re-establishing eulachon fisheries. Any fisheries would be used to gather samples of adult smelt to refine a spawning estimation model and to gather catch and effort data useful toward monitoring the status of the population, according to a news release from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Because eulachon (Columbia River smelt) were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, all smelt fisheries in the Columbia River and tributaries were closed in January 2011.

Last year, however, the states and NMFS agreed to hold minor smelt research fisheries to monitor the population status.

The Cowlitz River was open for six hours on four Saturdays between Feb. 8 and March 1. The Sandy River was open for six hours on four Saturdays between March 1-22.

The recreational fishery proved to be very popular, and daily limits of 10 pounds of smelt per person were quickly met on about half of the open days. The catch of 197,900 pounds from the Cowlitz and 6,000 pounds from the Sandy exceeded biologists’ expectations, due in part to the large smelt return.

In addition, short commercial openings in the Columbia main stem resulted in a catch of nearly 19,000 pounds.

In providing an outlook for 2015, biologists are reporting marine environment monitoring shows favorable conditions during 2011-2013, with conditions deteriorating during 2014. They report, however, that positive indicators outnumber negative indicators.

Food sources for the smelt also seem to be good.

Another indicator has been the smelt bycatch during ocean shrimp trawl fisheries. The bycatch has been relatively high in the past couple of years despite improvements made to excluder devices.

In addition, age composition research shows a possible shift toward younger age classes. These younger age classes are less impacted by negative indicators, so if this change in composition is true, the prospects for 2015 improve, according to the release.