Ourigan. Candlefish. Smelt. Eulachon.
A fish of many names, eulachon are native to the Columbia River and have a history as rich as their very oily flesh. Historically an important food and trade item for Columbia River tribes, the annual eulachon runs easily numbered in the millions, or even tens of millions, and were harvested by tribes, commercial, and sport fishers literally by the bucketload. But today their numbers have declined, there is little information about the current status of the runs, and funding for needed research is practically nonexistent.
Skinny and small, typically seven to nine inches long, eulachon spawn in freshwater, grow in the ocean for two to five years, and then return to spawn in the mainstem Columbia and the mouths of lower-river tributaries in the late winter and early spring. Historically those tributaries ran thick with them – so thick that recreational fishers literally would scoop them out of the water – called “dipping” -- using hand-held nets.
Smelt fishing was so popular that communities along the lower river, Longview, Washington, for example, organized smelt festivals and crowned smelt queens (the winner got a box of smelt). Smelt/eulachon also are culturally and economically important to Northwest coastal Indian tribes, once comprising an important trade item. Northwest coastal tribes in what is now the United States and British Columbia traded them to interior tribes.
Eulachon are an essential part of the marine and freshwater ecosystems. They are an important food source in the marine environment for species from Chinook salmon to humpback whales, and in the freshwater environment, to sea lions, gulls, and eagles. Eulachon, which enter the Columbia to spawn in the winter and early spring, were known as the harbingers of larger fish, spring Chinook salmon. When the smelt appeared, the Chinook were not far behind. Notoriously oily, eulachon could be dried and literally burned as candles. Hence, another name for them: “candlefish.” As further evidence of their importance, the name by which they were known historically, by one theory, was shortened into the name of a state: Oregon.
Over time, the abundance of eulachon declined, and in November 2008 the Cowlitz Tribe petitioned to list them under the federal Endangered Species Act. The species was listed as threatened in 2010, and a recovery plan was developed.
Today fisheries researchers are trying to learn more about eulachon to improve forecasts of run sizes and decide whether to allow fisheries, but they are hampered by a lack of funding and a dearth of information. The best historical information is from records of commercial landings in Washington dating to the late 1800s, but these records are suspect because the fishing effort and market conditions varied from year to year.
This month, Laura Heironimus, sturgeon, smelt, and lamprey lead in the Southwest regional office of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, briefed the Council on the history and current condition of eulachon, noting that from 1938 to 2000, the annual mainstem Columbia River commercial landings averaged 400,000 pounds per year, Cowlitz River commercial landings averaged 1,170,000 pounds per year, and the combined commercial landings from the Lewis, Grays, Kalama, and Sandy rivers averaged 350,000 pounds. The annual recreational harvest was estimated to be as large as the commercial harvest. In 2016, though, the recreational harvest was 141,000 pounds, and in 2018, the entire catch totaled just 110 pounds. The 2019 run is expected to be low again, but better than last year.
Heironimus described several factors believed to have contributed to the decline of Columbia River eulachon: climate change impacts on ocean and freshwater conditions; bycatch of eulachon in the ocean fishery for pink shrimp; the impacts of hydropower dams on river flows and the size and velocity of the freshwater plume entering the ocean (the plume pushes larval eulachon out into the saltwater environment) and water quality problems. She said priority actions in the recovery plan are to continue to provide fisheries, even if limited; fill critical information gaps by expanding research; and support the eulachon cultural traditions of tribes.
NOAA Fisheries is helping to implement the plan by developing a small research trawl capable of live-capture of adult eulachon in the estuary near the mouth of the river. The trawl should provide an assessment – independent of a fishery – of run size and timing, age and sex of the fish, and some live fish for use in further research. NOAA also plans a hydroacoustic study in 2020 to evaluate the biomass of the eulachon run. The Cowlitz Tribe is monitoring eulachon near the mouth of the Cowlitz River to study egg and larvae densities and the male/female ratio.
But all of these efforts are hampered by inconsistent or non-existent funding.
“There has never been consistent funding for eulachon as far as I am aware,” she said. “With the recovery process, NOAA funded a number of years through multiple grant applications. And then those grants ended, and eulachon is not a high priority compared to some of the other species NOAA has on their list currently, and so to continue getting that funding has become increasingly difficult.”
Heironimus said it appears funding will be a chronic challenge.
“We support continued commercial and recreational fisheries to help us collect biological data, but state, federal and tribal partners have to work very closely together to get any funding for baseline biological monitoring to assess the run size every year,” she said. “But there is no consistent funding for any of these groups to aid in monitoring or research on eulachon on an annual basis. Going into this year we had no expectation of being able to monitor anything at all, and it was only through a bit of negotiating that the state was able to put a little money forward this year. In future years we don’t have any funding identified.”