They’re gathering, but the always fickle smelt are not quite ready to make their annual spawning dash for the Cowlitz River.
And even when they do, state fisheries officials are not sure there will be any recreational fishing opportunity. This year’s run is likely to be smaller than last year’s, and that was a poor one.
“There’s a chance that a fishery will happen, but there’s no guarantee,” said Olaf Langness, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s going to be one of those things where … there’s a decision made by the state of Washington on rather short notice. There’s not much wait time before a weekend where we’d want a fishery to happen.”
Lower Columbia smelt — scientifically known as eulachon — were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2010. They used to return to the Cowlitz in such abundance that smelt-laden fishing boats would return to dock up to their gunnels from the weight of fish. Kelso called itself the smelt capital of the world.
Smelt, like salmon, return to the river of their births to spawn, usually in mid to late winter. They are generally about five to six inches long and are caught with dip nets. Most of the commercial catch historically has been sold as bait and aquarium food.
In pre-Columbians times, smelt were a major source of sustenance for indian tribes, and it was the Cowlitz tribe that had filed the petition that led to their threatened listing. In times of great abundance, dip netters would line the banks of the river and haul in several pounds of fish with each sweep of their nets.
There likely are many causes for the species’ decline, including overfishing, poor survival in the sea and destruction of spawning grounds.
According to a WDFW press release, a limited commercial research fishery will monitor smelt abundance in the Columbia River, as it has in previous years. Langness said the approval of a commercial smelt season in 2018 depends on two factors: the average pounds of smelt per commercial catch delivery and whether the agency actually finds fish in the Cowlitz.
The commercial catch would have to average 250 pounds per delivery or more for fishery managers to approve a limited recreational fishery.
Langness said WDFW has confirmed sightings of sea lions feeding on smelt last week at Jones Beach, near Wauna, and near Cathlamet up to Mill Creek on the Columbia River. He also noticed bird activity in the Astoria region in cargo ships’ wakes, where smelt typically turn up, and there was marine mammal activity in the Cowlitz River.
The gillnet smelt season is set to begin Thursday and will continue to fish every Monday and Thursday until fishing periods are completed at the end of February, Langness said.