Using new methods to estimate run size, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife predicts about 7.5 million pounds of eulachon will return to the Columbia River this year, significantly better than last year's run of about 4.2 million pounds and far better than the dismal 2017 and 2018 runs.
Also known as Pacific smelt, eulachon are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They are considered an important part of the food web, and have been impacted by Columbia River dams. NOAA Fisheries completed a recovery plan for eulachon in 2017.
After experiencing runs exceeding 10 million pounds from 2013 through 2015, the Columbia River smelt run dwindled to less than half a million pounds in 2018, Laura Heironimus, the state agency's smelt, sturgeon and lamprey lead, told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee March 17.
Last year, it unexpectedly bounced back, and this year, preliminary estimates show it will be even better, she said. With numbers looking more abundant, WDFW offered eight days of fishing in February for commercial fishers, and two days for recreational fishing on the Cowlitz River.
The fishing has allowed researchers to get a rough estimate of the season's run, Heironimus said. Along with tribal fishing, estimated total harvest was about 69,790 pounds, or a rate of less than 1 percent of the run.
Robert Anderson, with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, told the Council committee that NOAA's recovery plan includes several priority actions, including establishment of a eulachon technical recovery and implementation team that will develop the framework for implementing the plan.
Another priority, he said, is continuing work with states and tribes on ocean bycatch (inadvertent catch of other fish) issues, and he mentioned success with using light emitting diodes. The lights have been shown to significantly reduce bycatch of smelt, which see them on fishing lines and largely avoid the net.
The plan also calls for working with states to offer limited opportunities for a eulachon fishery in the Columbia River. "That gives us data, and helps us in our outreach and education to bring in the public and engage them in conservation and recovery, while still being able to provide them with a meaningful fishing opportunity," Anderson said.