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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

March 17, 2010 at 3:20 PM

Columbia River smelt now officially listed as threatened

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There used to be a time when millions of Pacific smelt would flood the waters of the Lower Columbia River, and head to many tributaries like the Cowlitz and Sandy rivers, while hordes of sport dip-netters and tribal fishermen would line the shores to catch them by the bucket loads.

My how quickly times have changed and in a span of less than a decade these tiny silvery fish were officially declared on Tuesday, March 16, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

This listing of Pacific smelt might possibly lead to more stringent rules on sport and commercial fishing, which both Washington and Oregon had done during recent winter fishing seasons.

These migratory fish cover a broad range of area from Northern California clear up to the Bering Sea in Alaska. Locally, they return to spawn in late winter and early spring, and spend about three to five years in the ocean.

Their historic background show the smelt are culturally tied to native tribes of the Columbia River region area, and were first noticed during the Lewis and Clark expedition back in 1806.

A team of biologists from NOAA’s Fisheries Service and two other federal agencies concluded that there are at least two Pacific smelt distinct population segments on the West Coast. The one at issue extends from the Mad River in Northern California north into British Columbia.

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The Cowlitz Indian tribe in Washington petitioned NOAA’s Fisheries Service in 2007 to list the smelt populations in Washington, Oregon and California. The tribe’s petition described severe declines in smelt runs along the entire Pacific Coast, with possible local extinctions in California and Oregon.

NOAA found that this smelt stock is declining throughout its range. Further declines are expected as climate change affects the timing of spring flows in Pacific Northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful Pacific smelt spawning.

The migrating smelt also take a big hit by the shrimp fisheries in the United States and Canada, since the areas occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap. Other threats to the smelt include sea lion and bird predation as well.

While the smelt have now been listed it won’t mean an immediate halt to the harvest of the fish, but it will be complicated, and mean a lot more reviews and federal measures will be taken before such fishing seasons on smelt are allowed.

(Photos taken by Seattle Times staff photographer Mark Harrison)

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