No Cowlitz River recreational smelt fishing in 2023
Updated Monday, March 20 with additional commercial catch data.
For the first time since 2019, there will be no recreational fishing for Columbia River eulachon — better known as smelt — on the Cowlitz River in Southwest Washington.
Fishery managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) made the difficult call this week to not hold a smelt fishery in 2023, with commercial catch data suggesting that smelt did not return to the Cowlitz in the numbers expected.
From 2020–2022, recreational smelt fishing opened for one-day late-winter opportunities, and thousands of dip netters brought a festive atmosphere to the banks of the Cowlitz as they tried to get a 10-pound limit of the small, oily fish during the short windows open for fishing.
“We know this comes as a disappointment to many,” said Kelly Cunningham, director of WDFW’s Fish Program. “This is an incredibly unique fishing opportunity, and we love seeing so many people come out to enjoy it. Unfortunately, because this fishery is so unique, it also carries a unique set of challenges.”
Why no fishery in 2023?
The southern distinct population segment of eulachon was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010 due to a sharp decline in returns that began in the 1990s. Recreational fishing opportunities have occasionally opened in the years since, when the run is large enough to support them.
The primary tool for determining the number of eulachon returning to the Columbia River and tributaries are commercial fisheries, which opened this year in late January and ran three days per week through March 16.
The smelt run typically peaks in February to March, but commercial operators this year caught very few smelt during that window. About 160 pounds of smelt were caught by commercial operators during the last week of January, but no smelt were caught over the next five weeks. Commercial operators were not fishing on every open day during that time, but weren’t catching smelt even when there were boats on the water, said Laura Heironimus, smelt lead with WDFW.
There were some more smelt landed during open fishing days from March 6–9 — about 809 pounds in total — but that number dropped back to zero for two of the three fishing days the following week. (Update, March 20, 2023: An additional 757 pounds of smelt were reportedly caught on Thursday, March 16.) Heironimus noted that those smelt were caught in the Columbia River mainstem, but fish did not appear to be moving into the Cowlitz River.
In total, the commercial fishery caught just 1,726 pounds of smelt in 2023, the lowest since 2018 (the commercial fishery was closed altogether in 2019 due to concern over low returns). Managers anticipate this will represent an extremely low harvest rate compared to the total run size, but the final rate will be calculated at the end of the season.
“With those kinds of numbers, we have no choice but to hold off on a recreational fishery in 2023,” Heironimus said. “This is an ESA-listed population, so we have extremely strict requirements for when we can open a fishery, and we unfortunately didn’t meet those requirements this year.”
In addition to no more commercial smelt fishing days scheduled in 2023, the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery will begin releasing spring Chinook smolts the week of March 20, and a recreational fishery would run the risk of potentially catching those smolts if a late eulachon fishery were to open.
How smelt move
Tracking the timing of the smelt run is a tricky proposition. WDFW biologists and customer service staff receive reports of bird and pinniped (seal and sea lion) activity regularly, as these predators will chase large schools of smelt up the Columbia and into the tributaries. WDFW staff also make their own observations of smelt and predator activity throughout the lower Columbia in an effort to evaluate where and when the smelt might be running.
“While bird and pinniped movement can help us determine where smelt might be during the spawning season, at the end of the day it doesn’t tell us how many smelt there are,” Heironimus said. “It’s useful information, but it’s anecdotal and we can’t rely on it for setting a fishery for an ESA-listed species.”
Even in years when commercial operators are catching enough smelt to support a recreational fishery, it’s still a challenge to quickly set and conduct a fishery right as the smelt are running thick in the Cowlitz River, so timing that run is a challenge of its own.
This year, the run appeared to begin peaking early — around the time that commercial operators were pulling in those smelt during the first week the commercial fishery was open — but then seemed to slow down as temperatures dropped and winter weather settled in again in Western Washington.
Throughout the season, WDFW samplers detected small schools of smelt making brief runs into the Grays, Cowlitz, and Lewis rivers, but never in large enough numbers to set a recreational fishery.
Looking forward to 2024
Commercial fisheries aren’t the only method for tracking the smelt run. WDFW also runs surveys on the mainstem Columbia River from January through May, collecting egg and larval density data weekly during the smelt spawning season. While this provides the least-biased estimate of smelt abundance, it can only be properly evaluated post-season, not in-season like the commercial fishery. Biologists will use that data to determine the likely size of this year’s smelt run and estimate future runs in 2024 and beyond.
Meanwhile, WDFW is considering an update to its smelt management plan, which was last updated in 2001. Among the recommendations in that plan is development of an in-season test fishery, which would reduce reliance on the commercial fishery as a monitoring tool. Acoustic surveys are also recommended to monitor the return in-season and improve managers’ ability to time the run to offer the best opportunity in years when the return can support a recreational fishery.
“We’ll continue to look for ways to offer this fishery whenever possible in the future, but these things take time and funding to become a reality,” Heironimus said. “But we’ll do whatever we can to encourage the recovery of this population and the fisheries it supports.”