There will be no recreational or commercial smelt dipping on the Cowlitz or Lower Columbia rivers this year because the annual return is expected to be even worse than last year’s, according to the state fisheries officials.
Last year’s run was so tiny that sport dipping was prohibited for the first time in five years, and gillnetters caught only 110 pounds of the silvery, oily fish in an eight-day test fishery used to determine the size of the run.
Usually, fisheries managers want to see a 250-pound daily catch before opening up recreational dipping.
This year, the state will not even allow a test fishery because it seems pointless with the returns forecast to be so poor, said Linda Corra, a Washington Fish and Wildlife employee speaking for Laura Heironimus, the agency’s smelt manager.
Smelt were listed in 2010 under the federal Endangered Species Act as a threatened species from Washington state to the Mexican border. In 2014, after a three-year closure, WDFW opened a two-day sport fishery on the Cowlitz River in conjunction with a commercial test fishery designed to monitor the smelt population.
The recreational dip-net fishery on the Cowlitz River was limited to a six-hour period on a single day in both 2016 and 2017.
Smelt used to swim up the Cowlitz by the millions in the mid to late winter. The bounty was so large that Kelso boasted of itself as “the smelt capital of the world.” Like salmon, smelt are born from eggs in freshwater but migrate to the ocean to spend most of their lives, returning to their natal waters to spawn.
There is no one single cause of the species’ decline. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service document listing the species as threatened, smelt “abundance exhibits considerable year-to-year variability. However, nearly all spawning runs from California to southeastern Alaska have declined in the past 20 years, especially since the mid 1990s.”
From 1938 to 1992, the median commercial catch of smelt in the Columbia River was approximately 2 million pounds but from 1993 to 2006, the median catch had declined to approximately 43,000 pounds, representing a nearly 98 percent reduction in catch from the prior period.The principal causes of decline are thought to be habitat loss and degradation and sediment from Mount St. Helens and, perhaps, global climate change.