Pacific smelt declared a threatened species

Listing could mean more restrictions on dipping

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Concurring with a petition from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, the Obama administration on Tuesday officially declared Pacific smelt as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The listing eventually could mean further curtailments of commercial fishing and recreational smelt-dipping, although Oregon and Washington have already cut back on those opportunities due to anemic runs in recent years.

Federal dam managers now will have to consider the effect of their operations on smelt.

Smelt historically relied on a strong surge of runoff in the late spring to propel smelt larvae to the Pacific Ocean. Changes in the timing and volume of spring runoff due to atmospheric warming could hamper the smelt’s migration and affect the availability of prey, federal officials said.

“We were seeing declines long before climate change was on anybody’s radar, but things have gotten to a pretty perilous state for these fish,” said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.

Smelt are considered broadcast spawners, with each female spreading 20,000 to 60,000 eggs in coarse, sandy river bottoms.

Young smelt spend three to five years in the ocean before returning as 7- to 12-inch-long adults. Smelt, also known as eulachon, traditionally drew droves of fishermen armed with dip nets during their February and March migration into lower Columbia River tributaries such as the Cowlitz and Sandy rivers.

“The tribe just had its annual eulachon ceremony a few weeks ago and there were none for us to dip,” Taylor Aalvik, the Cowlitz’s natural resources director, said in a prepared statement. “Our nets were empty.”

The listing won’t immediately result in a prohibition against harvesting smelt, said Garth Griffin, a NMFS fisheries biologist involved in the listing decision. The listing will instead immediately require federal agencies to review all federal actions affecting the smelt, to ensure those actions do not jeopardize the creature’s survival as a species.

“As to protective efforts that people generally equate with ‘take’ prohibitions, we don’t have a plan for that yet,” Griffin said. “We’re still thinking about those kinds of things that might need to be regulated.”

The listing will complicate fishing seasons for smelt in the future, said Joe Hymer, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Vancouver. In contrast to salmon fishing, where sport fishermen keep fin-clipped hatchery fish and release ESA-listed wild fish, there are no hatchery-raised smelt.