NOAA's Fisheries Service
said this week it is proposing to list Pacific smelt as
threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Final action on
the proposal could come as soon as a year from now.
smelt, known officially as eulachon and sometimes called
candlefish or Columbia River smelt, 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. Recreational fishers catch smelt in
dip nets, and typically fry and eat them whole.
Smelt are a culturally significant species to native
tribes, traditionally representing a seasonally important food
source and a valuable trade item. Columbia River smelt were
first described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806 during the Corps
of Discovery; he lauded the fatty fish for their excellent
A team of biologists from NOAA's Fisheries Service and two
other federal agencies concluded that there are at least two
Pacific smelt distinct population segments on the West Coast.
The one at issue extends from the Mad River in Northern
California north into British Columbia. Should these fish
eventually be listed for federal protection, 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.
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Washington 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
The agency's scientific review found that this smelt stock
is declining throughout its range. Further declines are
expected as climate change affects the timing of spring flows
in Northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful
Pacific smelt spawning.
Additionally, the agency's review concluded that Pacific
smelt are particularly vulnerable to being caught in shrimp
fisheries in the United States and Canada, since the areas
occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap.
The agency said other threats to the fish include water
flow in the Klamath and Columbia river basins and bird, seal
and sea lion predation, especially in Canadian streams and
The agency will take public comment on the proposal, and
gather further scientific information on the species, the
reasons for its decline and possible efforts to restore its
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