Fisheries Scientists Predict Another Down Year For Eulachon, AKA Pacific Smelt, In The Columbia River

In better times, eulachon were so plentiful they covered a beach. Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The 2020 run of Columbia River Eulachon, a small fish also known as Pacific Smelt, is expected to be as good or better than the 2019 run, but the run this year is expected to continue a downward trend and, once again, recreational and sport fisheries have been curtailed -- as they have been every year since 2010.

“The 2020 run, if it comes in as predicted at 7.5 million pounds, is a decent return,” said Guy Norman, a Washington member of the Council and chair of the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the recent history of the run is discouraging.

“Since 2014 the run has dwindled,” Laura Heironimus, who works on smelt for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), told the Council at its March meeting. “However, last year we were pleasantly surprised by the number of age-2 eulachon in the river and the adult return of 4.2 million pounds.”

The 2020 run size estimate is based on test fisheries, both recreational and commercial, conducted in February. The two days of recreational fishing – known as smelt dipping – were hugely popular. It was the first recreational smelt fishery in three years.

A total of 4,300 recreational fishers were counted, and they caught 35,000 pounds of eulachon in just five hours on the Cowlitz River. A second recreational test fishery later the same month yielded just 40 fish. In addition to the recreational catch, commercial fishers took 10,150 pounds, and tribes caught 23,900 pounds, for a total of 69,790 pounds. This was predicted to be about 0.8 percent of the total run size.

More than 7 million pounds sounds like a lot of fish, but it’s a lot less than historic runs, which once were so large, numbering in the millions every year, that commercial fisheries could count on significant harvest annually and recreational fishers lined the banks of the lower Columbia River and one of its large tributaries, the Cowlitz, for days and scooped smelt out of the river using hand-held nets, or whatever they could improvise. The tiny fish – eight to nine inches or so at maturity – are rich in oil and, when dried, can be burned like candles. Hence, another of their names – “candlefish.”

Despite the recent uptick, eulachon runs still are disappointing. “It is unnerving to see what’s happening to our smelt returns,” said Bill Tweit, fish program special assistant for WDFW.

The annual returns have steadily declined since the 1990s to the point where the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the spring of 2010. Commercial and recreational fisheries were subsequently closed in 2011-2013. There was one day of sport dip-netting in 2017, and one day in 2016 when the return of eulachon increased to 5.1-million pounds. There were also brief commercial test fisheries on the Columbia in 2014 and 2015. Smelt abundance peaked recently in 2014, at 16.6-million pounds.