Pacific Smelt Listed as Threatened; Impact Unclear
The fish, also known as eulachon or candlefish, will be listed as a threatened species in the Federal Register on Wednesday, NOAA Fisheries Service said.
It is too early to tell whether the threatened species listing will shut down the very small commercial and recreational smelt fisheries regulated in state waters, said NOAA Fisheries biologist Garth Griffin. Those have already been reduced to a tiny impact on the population.
Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, said he did not expect the listing to have much effect on fishing for Oregon pink shrimp, which picks up Pacific smelt as bycatch - caught while intending to catch other fish.
The number of smelt caught that way is very small, and changes to gear designed to keep fish out of the nets can be made to reduce it even more, said Bob Hannah, project leader for shrimp fishing at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
And just what will be done to protect the fish has not been determined. But further declines are expected as global warming affects the abundance and location of tiny creatures called zooplankton, which smelt feed on, and changes springtime flows in the rivers where smelt lay their eggs, NOAA Fisheries said.
The Cowlitz Tribe in Washington state, which once depended on abundant catches of eulachon in the Columbia River for food and an item of trade, asked for the listing in 2007.
"The tribe just had its annual eulachon ceremony a few weeks ago and there were none for us to dip. Our nets were empty," Taylor Aalvik, director of the tribe's Natural Resources Department, said in a statement.
Explorer Meriwether Lewis drew a picture of the smelt and praised its rich oiliness in his journal while spending the winter at Fort Clatsop in 1806.
"In the past, commercial and recreational smelt catches used to average millions of pounds a year," tribal ecologist Nathan Reynolds said in a statement. "Smelt were so abundant they were simply raked out of rivers."
There are two populations.
The one getting protection ranges from the Mad River in Northern California to the Skeena River in British Columbia. Like salmon, it lays its eggs in rivers in late winter and spring and spends the rest of its life in the ocean. The other population ranges into Alaska and the Bering Sea.
Issues that could make it more difficult to reverse the decline include shrimp fishing, less water in rivers, and smelt being eaten by birds, seals and sea lions, the agency said.
"The thing that helps us, though, is the things that will help salmonids are going to tend to be helpful to eulachon as well," such as reducing erosion that sends suffocating silt into riverbeds where the fish lay their eggs, Griffin said.