Experimental Fishery For ESA-Listed Smelt Had Dipnetters Hitting 10-Pound Limits In Short Order
Posted on Friday, March 14, 2014 (PST)
Fishery experts’ calculations of threatened eulachon (smelt) spawner returns to the Columbia River and lower river tributaries in 2014 are very much works in progress with test fishery sampling mostly completed.
But ask almost any sea lion or seal, sea gull or human fisher and they’ll likely tell you the tiny, fat-filled fish species is having a rebound year.
With projections that the smelt spawner return from the Pacific Ocean to the Columbia was set to spike, fishers from across the Oregon-Washington region flocked to southwest Washington’s Cowlitz River March 1 and this past Saturday.
“Both Saturdays there were thousands of people participating, and I don’t doubt everyone got their limit,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Brad James said of the final two days of the first recreational fishery for eulachon in three years allowed in Cowlitz, the historic smelt breadbasket.
Some achieved those limits with just a couple dips of their long-stemmed scoop nets. Few ernest fishers took more than a half hour to snare their share of smelt.
Under new rules adopted in early February, sport fishing with dip nets was allowed on the Cowlitz from the riverbank from 6 a.m. until noon each Saturday through March 1. An extra day, March 8, was later approved by the state. Each dip-netter was allowed to retain 10 pounds of smelt per day.
Tribal fishers from the Yakama Nation too enjoyed what essentially was a blast from the past.
“This year is probably the best I’ve seen,” said Jeremy Takala, who is in his eighth year of smelt fishing. He fished with a Yakama crew that netted the Cowlitz March 5 and again this past Wednesday. Members of the crew with considerably more experience likewise said it was their best year ever, he said. The filled six “totes” – 4-foot-by-4-foot-by 4-foot boxes – in about 2 1/2 hours of fishing March 5. Four more totes were filled with smelt this past Wednesday.
The “subsistence” smelt catch of the past two weeks has carefully been bagged and distributed, first of all to tribal elders and then to other members. The early March catch was timely, adding to the menu of “wild celery” feasts at Yakama longhouses. Smelt deliveries to tribal members totaled more than 100, according to the Yakama Nation’s Emily Washines.
The party has not started yet in Oregon’s Sandy River. Sport smelt fisheries were set for 6 hours each Saturday there March 1-22. But there were no reports of smelt caught or presence for that first opener, said the ODFW’s John North. Sandy smelt returns even in the best of times were unpredictable. There was a return in 2013, for the first time since 2003, North said.
Eulachon spawn in both the mainstem Columbia and some lower river tributaries. Eulachon typically spawn annually in the Cowlitz River, with inconsistent runs and spawning events occurring in the Grays, Elochoman, Lewis, Kalama, and Sandy rivers, according to ODFW-WDFW joint staff report. Only the Sandy and Cowlitz have sport openings this year.
With another opener tomorrow (March 8), there is still hope for the Sandy. There have been reports of smelt presence – usually stemming from aggregations of sea gulls and sea lions and seals – as far upriver as off the shore of Vancouver, Wash. That’s across the Columbia from Portland, and just downriver of the mouth of the Sandy.
“They may get to the Sandy,” he said.
The “Southern Distinct Population Segment” of eulachon listed by NOAA Fisheries in 2010 under the ESA is a genetic group that encompasses all populations within the states of Washington, Oregon, and California and extends from the Skeena River in British Columbia (inclusive) south to the Mad River in northern California (inclusive). The Columbia has historically been the largest producer.
The National Marine Fisheries Service in making its listing decision identified climate change impacts on ocean conditions as the most serious threat to eulachon; with commercial harvest ranked 9th and recreational harvest ranked 13th among 16 identified threats to Columbia River eulachon.
Since 1992, average abundance of eulachon, as represented by commercial landings, declined by 90 percent from pre-1993 levels, according to a Feb. 4 joint staff report prepared by the ODFW and WDFW. The two agencies co-manage fisheries in the lower Columbia where the river represents the states’ border. Fishery decisions for the Cowlitz and Sandy were made by the respective states.
-- CBB, March 2, 2014, “ ESA-Listed Cowlitz River Smelt Arrive, Experimental Fishery Adds Another Day For Dip-Netters” http://www.cbbulletin.com/429934.aspx
-- See CBB, Feb. 7, 2014, ‘States, Feds Approve Limited Research-Based Fishery For ESA-Listed Columbia River Smelt’ http://www.cbbulletin.com/429690.aspx