This year's Columbia River smelt run—estimated at 10.1 million pounds—appears to be the highest since 2015, which was the last of three good years before the run plummeted to less than 1 million pounds in 2018.
Laura Heironimus, the lead of the sturgeon, smelt and lamprey unit for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the returns enabled her agency to open 13 commercial fishing periods this year, and a five-hour day of sport fishing on the Cowlitz River March 2 that drew some 10,000 people who came out to catch these native anadromous fish that are threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Also called the southern population of Columbia River eulachon, smelt and their eggs are important food sources for other fish—like white sturgeon, steelhead and Chinook salmon—and for whales, sea lions, seals and many bird species, Heironimus told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee on April 6.
WDFW and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe work together to monitor eulachon and estimate run sizes, calculated in pounds by both commercial landings and larval outflow.
Monitoring includes a spawning stock biomass estimate, from which managers estimate the minimum number of spawning adults needed to have produced the eulachon larval outflow observed each year.
Last year's sampling was cut short due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, so the estimated 2020 run of between 6.9 million and 8 million pounds is considered incomplete.
Heironimus said the estimate of this year's run—which is not yet finished—was more difficult due to last year's incomplete data, including the lack of age-class sampling data. She said the commercial and recreational fisheries—this year totaling 122,000 pounds or about 1.3 percent of the run—also help fishery managers monitor smelt and estimate the size of their run. "They're a largely understudied species, so there is a lot of information we still don't know," she said.
Robert Anderson, from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, told the committee that his agency initiated a new five-year review of Columbia River eulachon about one year ago. Their five-year spawning stock biomass average from 2011 through 2015 was estimated at about 98 million spawners, and that dropped to an average of 33 million spawners from 2016 through 2020.
He said the significant drop in numbers in 2018 impacted the five-year average. "It looks like it's on an uptick, and hopefully it'll continue in that direction," he said.