Federal protection requested for popular smelt

Pacific smelt, a small, popular recreational and food fish, could be listed as a threatened or endangered species by the end of next year.

Declining populations led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to announce Wednesday it plans to study whether smelt, also known as eulachon or candlefish, should be protected.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe, based in Longview, formally asked federal officials to consider the listing. The tribe backed up its request with genetic studies, which prompted the government to accept the tribe’s petition for protection, NOAA marine biologist Scott Rumsey said.

Smelt are common in the waters of Snohomish County, but declining runs on the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers make it necessary to study the species’ health in its entire range, officials said.

Kit Rawson, senior fishery management biologist for the Tulalip Tribes, said the tribal fisherman haven’t noticed a decline of smelt in its customary fishing areas, but they haven’t recently targeted the species.

Rawson said he hasn’t seen the Cowlitz tribe’s report but the Tulalips will look at it and determine how it may link to here.

“Besides directed harvest, smelt are important to the food chain that supports salmon, orca whales and other species of importance to the Tulalip Tribes,” Rawson wrote in an e-mail. “We are concerned whenever there is a decline in any component of that food chain.”

Smelt have been affected by sediment in the Toutle River, a tributary of the Cowlitz, left over from the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, according to the tribe. Dams on the Cowlitz have kept the sediment from flushing on downstream, the tribe contends. The Cowlitz River empties into the Columbia River.

The Cowlitz tribe contends climate change is another potential factor for the smelt decline, Rumsey said.

The agency will convene a team of experts to study biological issues along with environmental factors, NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said. The team is expected to come back with a recommendation next fall. If the agency decides the smelt should be protected, hearings would be convened. The earliest the listing could take effect is the fall of 2009, Gorman said.

An ocean-going, river-spawning fish, smelt once were second only to salmon in importance as a resource for Indians living along lower Columbia River tributaries, according to Nathan Reynolds, ecologist for the Cowlitz Tribe.

A decline in smelt runs in the Northwest has been evident to federal scientists since about 1999, Rumsey said. It’s most prominent in the two largest populations of Pacific smelt, in the Columbia River and the Fraser River in British Columbia, he said.

Pacific smelt range from Northern California to the Bering Sea, but the protection, if enacted, would apply only to fish south of the U.S.-Canada border.

If smelt are protected, it would mean that any anyone who spends federal money on projects in areas where smelt are found must make sure their actions don’t harm the fish.

It also would require federal officials to develop a plan for restoring smelt populations.

While it’s too early to tell, Gorman said, protection for smelt also could result in fishing restrictions.

Smelt, averaging about 9 inches in length, live on plankton. They are preyed upon by a variety of fish, including salmon and sea-run cutthroat trout, and by whales, birds and humans.

Puget Sound Chinook salmon were listed as threatened in 1999 and Puget Sound orcas, also known as killer whales, were listed as endangered in 2005. It’s too early to determine if there is a correlation between the decline of the salmon and orca populations and that of smelt, Rumsey said.

Even recreational smelt catches often are large, with limits listed in pounds, rather than number of fish.

“Smelt used to be so abundant that they were simply raked from the rivers,” according to Reynolds, the Cowlitz tribal ecologist.

Recreational anglers usually catch smelt by “jigging,” or by scooping them up with dip nets. The prime season for smelt fishing is from November to March, with smelt headed for rivers to spawn in the spring and early summer. Popular nearby spots include the Everett Marina, La Conner, Cornet Bay in Deception Pass State Park and the Oak Harbor Marina.

Smelt are popular at the Waterfront Fish Market in Everett, co-owner D.J. Peterson said. He hasn’t noticed any scarcity, and is able to buy them fresh, in season, from a regular supplier three to four times a week, he said.

“People go crazy for them,” Peterson said. “Any time we get them in, they’re gone within the day.”

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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