State Fish and Wildlife is meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 5 to discuss what options there are, if any for a sport smelt dip-net fishery on the Lower Columbia and/or Cowlitz rivers.
By the late 1990s, these small silver-colored fish started to dwindle dramatically to the point where National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in spring of 2010.
That meant smelt have been off-limits to fishermen since 2011, and even touching them dead or alive has been a no-no.
Last spring, smelt began reappearing in extremely strong numbers. A mass of smelt about 20 miles long was seen in the Columbia mainstem from Longview up to Bonneville Dam, and in the Cowlitz, Toutle, Kalama, Lewis and Sandy rivers.
During a sport advisory group meeting in late December, state fisheries managers toyed with the idea of possibly allowing a limited smelt harvest in the Columbia River this coming season.
“We discussed some different options after the big run last year,” said Ron Roler, the state Fish and Wildlife Columbia River policy coordinator. “If we decide on moving forward, it wouldn’t be a free-for-all, and possibly a way to gain some data from the run. We’ll be working with NMFS on options for the future, but nothing is set in stone and it’s still an ongoing negotiation.”
Some possibilities include a one-day-per-week sport fishery or a small commercial bobber-net test fishery in a couple different areas.
There was a time when millions of migrating Pacific smelt would jam the Lower Columbia River en route to tributaries, while thousands of sport dip-netters lined the shores to catch them by the bucket loads.
Pacific smelt cover the West Coast from northern California 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. There’s a small population that migrates into Puget Sound.