NOAA’s Fisheries Service said earlier today it is listing Pacific smelt as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The move should come as no surprise to anyone who has tried dipping for smelt in places like the Cowlitz River the last several years. The season has dwindled along with the runs to the point where there were just four days of recreational dipping allowed this year in just the Cowlitz.
A “threatened” species is in danger of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. An “endangered” species is one in danger of extinction in all or part of its range.
Pacific smelt, known officially as eulachon, are small ocean-going fish that historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. They return to rivers to spawn in late winter and early spring. This little fish is so high in body fat during spawning that it can be dried, strung on a wick and burned, lending another name to its list of aliases—candlefish.
A team of biologists from NOAA’s Fisheries Service and two other federal agencies concluded last year that there are at least two Pacific smelt distinct population segments on the West Coast. The one listed today extends from the Mad River in northern California north into British Columbia. These population segments are different from the endangered delta smelt, a freshwater species found in California’s Sacramento River delta.
Following the announcement, Phil Anderson, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, issued this statement:
“The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife supports the listing of Pacific smelt as threatened under the federal ESA. The decline of this important forage fish species over the past two decades is a serious concern and one that deserves our best effort to reverse. During this time period, WDFW has worked closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce the harvest of smelt to low levels without a positive response from the smelt resource. The information compiled by NOAA Fisheries during its status determination indicates that climate change, poor ocean survival conditions, lack of adequate freshwater flows and predation by seals and sea lions have combined to threaten to smelt throughout their range from northern California to Alaska.
“WDFW will continue to work with NOAA Fisheries, ODFW, and the Cowlitz Tribe to identify corrective actions that will lead to recovery this important resource.”
The Cowlitz Indian tribe petitioned NOAA’s Fisheries Service in 2007 to list the fish populations in Washington, Oregon and California. The tribe’s petition described severe declines in smelt runs along the entire Pacific Coast, with possible local extinctions in California and Oregon.
NOAA’s own review found this smelt stock is indeed declining throughout its range, and further declines are expected as climate change affects the availability of its prey.
Climate change is also expected to change the timing and volume of spring flows in Northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful Pacific smelt spawning and these changes could have a negative effect on spawning success.
The agency’s review also concluded that Pacific smelt are vulnerable to being caught in shrimp fisheries in the United States and Canada, because the areas occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap.
The agency said other threats to the fish include water flows in the Klamath and Columbia River basins and bird, seal and sea lion predation, especially in Canadian streams and rivers.
With the listing, the agency will turn its attention to determining what, if any, protective measures are needed for smelt. It would also determine the extent of the fish’s critical habitat.
In addition to these protections, the ESA requires federal agencies to ensure that activities they authorize, fund or conduct are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species. Prohibitions against harming them would apply only to Pacific smelt in U.S. waters or to U.S. citizens on the high seas, even though the population extends into Canada.