Limited smelt dipping to return to Cowlitz River

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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For the first time in four years, sport smelt dipping — ever so briefly — will be allowed in the Cowlitz River.

Washington on Wednesday adopted a conservative reintroduction of smelt harvest by announcing that dipping will be allowed from 6 a.m. to noon on the next four Saturdays.

The daily limit will be 10 pounds per person.

Ron Roler, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, estimated the harvest would range between 1,500 and 39,900 pounds.

Oregon approved allowing sport dipping in the Sandy River from 6 a.m. to noon on Saturdays from March 1 through March 22.

The two states approved a commercial season of 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays from Feb. 10 through March 6 in the Columbia River between Woodland and the ocean.

Roler estimated the commercials would land between 2,300 to 13,300 pounds. No commercial dipping in the tributaries is being allowed at this time.

Smelt once returned to the lower Columbia and Cowlitz rivers in extraordinary numbers. Commercial landings from 1938 to 2000 averaged 400,000 pounds annually in the lower Columbia and 1.17 million pounds annually in the Cowlitz River.

But starting in the early 1990s, the population plummeted. In 2010, smelt were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Roler said the National Marine Fisheries Service identified the effects of climate change on ocean conditions as the most serious threat to smelt. Commercial harvest was ranked ninth and sport harvest was ranked 13th among 16 identified threats.

Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted that smelt populations have been improved for three years in a row and a huge run returned in 2013.

Washington and Oregon have a joint smelt management plan with three tiers of harvest. The seasons adopted Wednesday are about 50 percent reduced from the most conservative tier.

The seasons essentially amount to test fisheries to acquire data used in monitoring smelt populations.

Jack Marincovich, a commercial fisherman from Astoria, said the public still likes to buy smelt to eat and getting at least a small amount on the market is a good move.

Darren Crookshanks, president of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, a commercial fishing group, complained about the lack of a commercial dip net season in the Cowlitz.

"I can't believe you're going to take that out of the equation,'' he said.

Brad James, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the seasons combined are unlikely to catch even 1 percent of smelt returning in 2014.

Roler said it is believed there were some smelt in the Cowlitz on Jan. 18-19. He also said there were reports on Wednesday of a big concentration of birds and marine mammals downstream of the Astoria Bridge, a telltale sign of smelt.

Norman said while the fisheries are meager, they are important.

"We get valuable information that we've been missing the last few years,'' he said.

But also, even limited harvests result in "continuing some public connection to the resource,'' he added.