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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

November 20, 2010 at 5:01 AM

Smelt fishing in Columbia River will be closed in 2010-2011

Everyone who’s been tracking the Columbia River smelt returns the last decade knew this dreaded news was looming over the dark horizon.

It was only a matter of time, like that black storm cloud hanging over your smelt-dipping head, especially after Columbia River smelt were federally-listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act back on May 17.

State Fish and Wildlife gathered the other day, and decided to not allow any sport or commercial smelt fishing in the Big C.

A report pointed out that due to the recent listing, it is highly unlikely the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) would support fisheries with direct take of smelt; therefore, the states are proposing to close all directed fisheries.

Recreational smelt fishing in Washington Columbia River mainstem and tributary waters are closed under permanent regulations.

Recreational smelt fisheries in Oregon tributaries of the Columbia River will close effective Jan. 1, 2011, and pending action by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, commercial smelt fisheries in the Sandy and Umpqua rivers may also close effective December 2010.

Under permanent rule, the Columbia River is scheduled to open for commercial smelt fishing effective December 1, 2010.

State fisheries managers are meeting Nov. 23 and have proposed the following:

Effective Dec. 1: Rescind the Columbia River commercial smelt fishery scheduled to occur under permanent regulations during Dec. 1- March 31.

The states will be working with NMFS in developing and expanding research activities to provide information on adult and juvenile smelt abundances and distribution. This will include discussions about using catch-per-unit-effort data in the mainstem Columbia.

My oh my, how times have changed so drastically for Columbia River smelt within the past two decades.

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.

Commercial catches in the 1990s totaled millions of pounds, and stayed relatively high through the early 2000s.

Prior to 1995 only minor regulation changes were adopted for Columbia River commercial and sport smelt fishing seasons, according to state Fish and Wildlife. During 1960-1977 commercial smelt fisheries were open year-round 3 1/2 days per week, except for 1965 and 1966 when the season was expanded to 4 1/2 days per week. Beginning in 1978 the commercial season was expanded to seven days per week. Prior to 1986 the season was open the entire year but beginning in 1986 the season was reduced to the December-March time frame to better reflect the run timing of Columbia River smelt. Prior to 1997 the sport fishery was open seven days per week the entire year.

As Columbia River smelt abundance began to decline during the early 1990’s, fishery managers recognized the need to restrict fisheries to increase escapement to spawning areas. Lower Columbia River mainstem and tributary commercial fisheries were greatly reduced beginning in 1995.

During 1995 and 1996, commercial fisheries were restricted to fewer fishing days per week, but the season extended through the end of March.

During 1997-2000, commercial fisheries were further reduced to test fisheries, which ended in mid to late February. These test fisheries were intended to allow minimal smelt catch to provide fishery managers with data necessary to assess the annual run strength and provide an opportunity to sample catch for biological data. Seasons during these test fisheries were severely restricted in both days per week fished and duration of the fishing season.

The commercial catch in 2009 totaled a mere 12,100 pounds [5,900 in 2008] from the Cowlitz River, and 5,600 pounds [11,400] from the Columbia River mainstem. The record lowest total commercial catch since 1938 was 200 pounds in 2005, and the second lowest was 8,300 pounds in 2007.

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