LONGVIEW — A commercial smelt fishery on the Columbia River will return this year after larger-than-predicted runs in 2019 boosted optimism that the iconic fish are rebounding from historic lows.
However, wildlife management officials are waiting to gauge the strength of the commercial test fishery before deciding whether to open recreational dipping on the Cowlitz River.
“As we are collecting information, we will be able to evaluate whether or not the run size will support a recreational fishery,” Laura Heironimus, a WDFW fish manager, told TDN on Wednesday.
The Columbia River Compact, which includes state Departments of Fish and Wildlife in Washington and Oregon, on Tuesday approved an eight-day “research-level” commercial fishery for Mondays and Thursdays Feb. 3 through Feb. 27. Smelt fishing will be allowed those days between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The test fishery extends the hours for fishing, up from an eight-hour time frame in 2018. Industry officials requested the change because it increases the chance for favorable tides.
“If there are no tides available, they just don’t fish. And if they don’t fish, there is no data to evaluate the abundance of runs,” Heironimus said during a Compact teleconference Tuesday.
Data collected during the commercial runs help scientists determine whether their earlier forecasts are “in the ballpark” for actual returns, Heironimus said. Fish managers can use the pounds per landing on mainstem fisheries – the first the fish will encounter on their way to spawn — to evaluate the size of the run as it comes in.
Research-level fisheries also help scientists understand how the species is doing, Heironimus said. Smelt have been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2010.
Smelt abundance increased steadily from 2011 to 2016, peaking at an estimated 16.6 million pounds in 2014. But runs tanked after that. Fish managers estimated that fewer than 400,000 pounds returned in 2018, making it the smallest run since the Compact started estimating spawning stock biomass in 2010.
“(Smelt) are a pretty cyclical species in abundance, meaning we see highs and lows in abundance over time,” Heironimus said.
The compact did not approve any commercial or recreational smelt fishing in 2019 due to the poor run in 2018.
“Last year our our forecast going into the season, we were expecting there to be like nothing, very few fish if anything,” Heironimus said.
However, runs actually improved, with an estimated 4.2 million pounds of smelt returning.
Abundance indicators for 2020 are mixed, but wildlife scientists expect a similar run to 2019, the fact sheet says. Heironimus said it was unclear whether that will be enough fish to support sport dipping this year, which would have to be approved by several different agencies.
On Tuesday, the Compact did not discuss opening recreational fisheries for 2020. Recreational smelt dipping was last allowed in 2017.
“Washington and Oregon staff will determine if fisheries are warranted (in 2020) after additional freshwater abundance indicators become available,” the a Compact fact sheet says.
Smelt fisheries remained closed last year despite the stronger-than-expected run late in the spring. Although returns exceeded estimates, wildlife officials said numbers were still too low to justify fisheries.
Smelt runs to the Cowlitz River were once so abundant that Kelso called itself the “Smelt Capital of the World.” Photos from the first half of the 20th century depict dipping boats brimming with the silvery fish, often loaded to the tops of their gunnels.
No one is certain why the runs have crashed. Some factors cited are destruction of spawning grounds, overfishing, poor ocean survival and the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, which caused the decades-long silting problem in the Cowlitz.
However, Cowlitz smelt — also known as eulachon — have been on a boom-and-bust cycle since the 1800s, Skamokawa gillnetter and historian Irene Martin writes in the December 2014 issue of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly.
“Both prehistoric and historic evidence indicates that eulachon run sizes have fluctuated dramatically over the years,” Martin writes.