Smelt fisheries taking shape for 2023

Rate this post

COLUMBIA RIVER — Fisheries managers are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to deciding whether to allow any recreational harvest of smelt this year.

Also known as eulachon, traditionally the species was highly prized by the Chinook and other Columbia River tribes for its oil content and nutritional value. It later became important to the area’s Scandinavian and Finn immigrants. Currently, it is mostly harvested for use as bait.

“At this time, Washington and Oregon are not recommending recreational smelt fisheries in the Cowlitz or Sandy rivers. Staff will determine if fisheries are warranted after additional freshwater abundance indicators become available,” the Washington and Oregon Departments of Fish and Wildlife decided Jan. 24.

At the same time, the agencies authorized commercial gillnetting to commence on the mainstem of the Columbia River on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from Jan. 25 through March 16. This fishery is defined as “research level,” planned in part to allow the agencies to assess how well smelt populations are doing.

Smelt returns have gyrated wildly in recent years, garnering a federal Endangered Species Act listing in 2010 after the population collapsed in 2005. Returns rebounded to an estimated 18.3 million pounds in 2022, the highest number since 2011. However, as recently as 2018, only 370,000 pounds are believed to have returned.

Looking ahead to this year’s run, “Abundance indicators for the 2023 smelt return suggest a moderate to strong return of the predominant age classes (age-3, age-4, and age-5),” roughly on par with or slightly lower than 2022.

Local residents reported significant smelt returns to the Grays River in western Wahkiakum County in March 2021 and 2022, and in January 2017, attracting large numbers of bald eagles, seals and other predators. Strong smelt runs also are a major attraction for humpback whales in the main Columbia. Smelt also are known to return to the Naselle River and other Willapa Bay tributaries.

Smelt facts

Forage fish that spend most of their lives in the ocean but which return to fresh water to spawn, smelt are highly sensitive to changes in ocean temperature and chemistry. Habitat loss and man-made changes in the Columbia River are also big factors in smelt problems.

Smelt arrive in the Lower Columbia River between February to May, with most from March to April. They are an important food source for other fish and wildlife, even in the main estuary near the river’s mouth. They arrive in the estuary weeks before they make their spawning run upstream.

Spawning in the Columbia Basin is typically over sand, course gravel or mineral grains. Each spawning female averages 29,930 eggs, which attach to the substrate. Once they spawn, they die.

Eggs incubate and develop while being carried downstream by river currents via “mobile incubation” or “tumble incubation.”

They hatch in 30 to 40 days depending on water temperatures. Newly hatched larvae are transparent and are transported downstream by spring freshets and are dispersed by estuarine, tidal and ocean currents into the estuary-nearshore environment.

The larva may remain in the estuary for several weeks before entering the ocean. They eventually move to deeper areas off the coast in water 66 to 292 feet deep.

Smelt typically live two to five years in saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn, spending 95 to 98% of their lives at sea.

Management plan

WDFW is taking public comment on an environmental analysis of a plan to manage smelt in the Columbia River basin.

Since their 2010 ESA listing, changes in population status, federal regulations, and other information led to the need for development of a new management plan for the Washington and Oregon segment of the population.

“Overall, this updated plan is not a drastic departure from current management strategies,” said Laura Heironimus, Columbia River smelt lead with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The updated plan is meant to help us continue to put conservation first while still offering flexibility for strategic harvest when the population can support it.”

The Columbia River and tributaries historically supported robust commercial and recreational smelt fisheries, but these were restricted beginning in the 1990s due to continued poor returns. “Conservation-minded fisheries have since resumed in years when the return can support them,” WDFW said.

The new plan identifies current management strategies and makes recommendations for monitoring and evaluation of the population, as well as harvest criteria and communication between state and federal managers, according to the agency.

The draft management plan is undergoing a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) public comment period. The SEPA determination, draft plan, and supporting documents are available on WDFW’s website: Members of the public can submit comments on the SEPA determination online, by email, or by mail to Lisa Wood, SEPA/NEPA Coordinator, WDFW Habitat Program, Protection Division, P.O. Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2023.

You are viewing this post: Smelt fisheries taking shape for 2023. Information curated and compiled by along with other related topics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here