NOAA listing smelt as threatened; cites climate change as biggest threat

<I>Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife</I><BR>Until 1993, millions of pounds of smelt were commercially harvested every year in the Columbia River watershed.

COLUMBIA RIVER - NOAA's Fisheries Service announced last Tuesday it is listing Pacific smelt as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The final listing will take effect on May 17.

Under the ESA, a threatened species is one judged to be in danger of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. An endangered species is defined under the ESA as in danger of extinction in all or part of its range.

Pacific smelt, known officially as eulachon, are small ocean-going fish that historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. They typically spend three to five years in saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn in late winter through mid-spring.

In the portion of the species' range that lies south of the U.S.-Canada border, most eulachon production originates in the Columbia River basin. Other river basins in the U.S. where eulachon have been documented include the Mad River, Redwood Creek, and the Klamath River in California; the Umpqua River in Oregon; and infrequently in coastal rivers (primarily the Quinault and Elwha rivers) in Washington. Smaller rivers such as the Naselle, which discharges into Willapa Bay, also had significant smelt runs. The last significant run on the Naselle was in February 1992.

The listing determination said that NOAA Fisheries had "identified changes in ocean conditions due to climate change as the most significant threat to eulachon and their habitats" and that climate-induced change to freshwater habitats is a moderate threat.

Returns in recent years have been so low that only limited fishing opportunity has been allowed in the Columbia and Washington's Cowlitz River, a Lower Columbia tributary that is a primary spawning ground for the smelt. What fishing that has been allowed is used as a tool to help evaluate smelt abundance and thus the status of the stock.

"The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife supports the listing of Pacific smelt as threatened under the federal ESA," said Phil Anderson, director of WDFW. "The decline of this important forage fish species over the past two decades is a serious concern and one that deserves our best effort to reverse.

"During this time period, WDFW has worked closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce the harvest of smelt to low levels without a positive response from the smelt resource," Anderson said. "WDFW will continue to work with NOAA Fisheries, ODFW, and the Cowlitz Tribe to identify corrective actions that will lead to recovery of this important resource."

Commerce harvest collapses One measure of annual run strength is commercial landings, which from 1938-92 were in the millions of pounds annually from the Columbia River and its tributaries. But by 1994 the catch had dropped to only 43,000 pounds and in 1995 fishery restrictions were enacted.

Smelt commercial harvest improved significantly in 2001, and stayed strong through 2003 when more than a million pounds were harvested in the mainstem Columbia and in Oregon and Washington tributaries.

That total dipped to only 200 pounds in 2005 and annual harvests have been only marginally better since. The smelt "catch per unit of effort" by the commercial fleet in each of past five years has been among the lowest on record. Landings totaled 5,600 pounds in 2009 and recreational fishing was poor due to low abundance. In 2010 only 3,600 pounds were caught in the Columbia.

A similar precipitous drop occurred in the 2005 Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans' (CDFO) New Westminster eulachon test fishery and in 2006 the northern British Columbia stock (e.g. Skeena River), and central British Columbia stock (e.g. Bella Coola River) groups collapsed as well as the southern stocks (Fraser River and Columbia River). The low landings during 2005-07 suggest poor production for all components (age three to five) of the 2010 run.

Historically important The little fish is so high in body fat during spawning that it can be dried, strung on a wick and burned, lending another name to its list of aliases - candlefish. Eulachon, rich in calories, are important to marine and freshwater food webs, commercial and recreational fishermen, and indigenous people from northern California to Alaska. They have a life history similar to that of Pacific salmon: hatching in freshwater, rearing and maturing in the ocean.

A team of biologists from NOAA's Fisheries Service and two other federal agencies concluded last year that there are at least two Pacific smelt distinct population segments on the West Coast. The one listed this week extends from the Mad River in northern California north into British Columbia. These population segments are different from the endangered delta smelt, a freshwater species found in California's Sacramento River delta.

Smelt have historically played an important role in the culture of Northwest native tribes, representing a seasonally important food source and a valuable trade item. Columbia River smelt were first described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806 during the Corps of Discovery; he lauded the fatty fish for their excellent taste.

The Cowlitz Indian tribe in Washington state petitioned NOAA's Fisheries Service in 2007 to list the fish 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.

Impacted by climate NOAA's own scientific review found that this smelt stock is indeed declining throughout its range, and further declines are expected as climate change affects the availability of its prey.

Climate change is also expected to change the timing and volume of spring flows in Northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful Pacific smelt spawning and these changes could have a negative effect on spawning success. The agency's review also concluded that Pacific smelt are vulnerable to being caught in shrimp fisheries in the United States and Canada because the areas occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap.

The agency said other threats to the fish include water flows in the Klamath and Columbia River basins and bird, seal and sea lion predation, especially in Canadian streams and rivers.

Recreational fishers catch smelt in dip nets, and typically fry and eat them whole. These fish are also the bait of choice for sturgeon fishers, and are often caught specifically for that purpose.

Now that Pacific smelt have been listed as threatened, the agency said it would turn its attention to determining what, if any, protective measures - known as 4(d) rules - are needed for smelt. It would also determine the extent of the fish's critical habitat. In addition, the ESA requires federal agencies to ensure that activities they authorize, fund or conduct are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

Prohibitions against harming them would apply only to Pacific smelt in U.S. waters or to U.S. citizens on the high seas, even though the population extends into Canada.

All of the West Coast states individually manage their own small commercial and recreational smelt fisheries and are responsible for writing and enforcing fishing regulations.

For more information on the eulachon ESA listing, see (

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