Lower Columbia managers approved a limited mainstem commercial smelt fishery that could help determine whether enough fish are available for recreational anglers to dip their nets as well.
There are good signs of eulachon presence this month, including sightings in the Cowlitz, and plentiful sea lions there and upstream in the Lewis.
But in recent years managers have been using data from “research level” commercial openers not only for its rich biological information about the 2010 Endangered Species Act-listed population, but as a gauge for greenlighting sport dipping.
The benchmark has been deliveries of at least 150 pounds on average.
This morning ODFW and WDFW representatives OKed gillnetting on Mondays and Thursdays from January 28 through February 25 in the Columbia from Buoy 10 to Warrior Rock at the mouth of the Lewis.
Technically, those nine commercial fishing periods are open for 12 hours, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., but fishery managers indicated that’s more of a matter of providing a chance for skippers in different parts of the river to fish the best tides for them.
According to a fact sheet out ahead of today’s decision, commercial openers from 2014-18 and in 2020 delivered an average of 9,200 pounds of smelt. Last year’s saw 10,255 pounds delivered to the dock.
Landings are tracked and posted on ODFW’s website.
Sport seasons in those same years averaged 134,256 pounds, with 2020’s opener yielding 35,500 pounds.
Due to a low run there was no season in 2018, and in 2019 a measly 110 pounds were caught by commercial fishers.
During this morning’s Columbia Compact call, state managers said that fisheries help fill in data gaps about a species that isn’t as well known as others in the big river, including age and sex composition of the run, and fecundity.
They’re expecting a “moderate” run of 3.8 million to 4.2 million pounds of smelt, about the size of recent years, with stronger numbers of 3- and 4-year-old fish.
ODFW’s Tucker Jones said that with funding for smelt research having failed to materialize, commercial fisheries were a prudent way to monitor the population.
“I don’t know other ways to get it,” Jones said.
Commercial advisors spoke in favor of the opener. David Moskowitz of The Conservation Angler wondered what sort of enforcement was occurring on the Cowlitz right now. Last year saw around 500 pounds of smelt seized from scofflaws during the opener.
WDFW’s Laura Heironimus noted that holding recreational smelt fisheries is also a key “connection” for keeping the public engaged in their recovery.
“NMFS thinks that’s important,” she stated of federal overseers.
But there’s a curveball this year: Covid.
“We’re working with county public health officials to determine if they’ll support a fishery with the pandemic concerns,” Heironimus told our MD Johnson for a large feature in the February issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine. “This fishery tends to bring a lot of people out from a lot of different areas. Often, thousands if not tens of thousands of people will show up on a single day.”