Smelt fisheries set to open on Cowlitz, Columbia rivers

Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) or smelt can be caught this year during brief sport and commercial seasons.

VANCOUVER — State fishery managers approved limited fisheries for smelt on the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers on specific dates in February during a joint meeting between Washington and Oregon Wednesday.

Their action marks the second year that the two states have allowed smelt fishing since 2010, when the species — also known as eulachon — was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) along the Pacific Coast.

NOAA Fisheries, which oversees ESA-listed stocks, supports limited fisheries that contribute to research, said Ron Roler, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We are expecting another strong return in 2015, although not quite as large as the huge return of nearly 200 million smelt that came back to the Columbia last year,” Roler said.

Roler said these fisheries have a limited impact on the overall smelt return, while gathering biological data on the species’ abundance. “So it’s still OK to have fun catching them on days when the fishery is open,” he said.

Under this year’s rules, the Cowlitz River will be open to recreational dip netting along the shore from 6 a.m. until noon Saturday, Feb. 7, and again Saturday, Feb. 14.

Each dip-netter may retain 10 pounds of smelt per day, with no more than one day’s limit in possession. Ten pounds is about a quarter of a five-gallon bucket. No fishing license is required to dip for smelt in Washington state.

Oregon announced similar rules for the Sandy River for a smelt fishery in early to mid-March.

The two states also approved a commercial fishery for smelt that will run from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays in February on the Columbia River downstream from Warrior Rock at the mouth of the Lewis River.

In 2014, sport dippers harvested an estimated 198,000 pounds of eulachon on the Cowlitz River last year during two days of good fishing in early March. The mainstem commercial fishery harvested an estimated 18,600 pounds of fish during the month of February.

“To put that into perspective, last year’s return of nearly 200 million fish amounted to about 16.6 million pounds of smelt,” Roler said.

In addition to setting fishing seasons for smelt fisheries, resource managers from Washington and Oregon also approved fishing rules for this year’s spring chinook salmon fishery. By Jan. 29 regulations for both fisheries will be posted on WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/rulechanges.

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