Put those long-handled dipping nets back up on the hooks in the garage, folks.
While signs started to look good last week with decent commercial catches and Friday saw a large presence of sea lions downstream in the Lower Columbia, WDFW stated there won’t be a smelt dipping opener on the lower Cowlitz this season.
WDFW says that while the 250-pound commercial landing threshold was met on both March 8 and 9, two net openers this week yielded zeros and no fish have been seen moving into the Southwest Washington river, another measure towards state managers holding a season on the Endangered Species Act-listed stock.
It’s a downer because this year’s run was expected to be as large as last year’s, which provided a five-hour recreational harvest of just 169,000-plus pounds of the oily fish also known as eulachon.
This will be the first year since 2019 without dipping.
Fingers crossed, the 2023 return could still come in – the big river has been flowing a degree or two below average for this time of year and smelt are sensitive to water temperatures, and there are two videos floating around today of a huge horde of hungry sea lions near County Line Park below the mouth of the Cowlitz, a typical signal of smelt and/or spring Chinook presence – but it won’t lead to any dipping.
Yesterday was the last scheduled commercial test fishery opener and no more are on the calendar. Commercial catches are used both to collect biological data on the run and as a gauge for when to open a sport opener.
Agency spokesman Ben Anderson noted that 160 pounds worth were caught in January by a commercial netter, but none were landed the rest of that month, all of February and the start of March before 809 pounds came in last week.
“With those kinds of numbers, we have no choice but to hold off on a recreational fishery in 2023,” WDFW smelt biologist Laura 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.”
WDFW also notes that Cowlitz River spring Chinook smolt releases will begin next week “and a recreational fishery would run the risk of potentially catching those smolts if a late eulachon fishery were to open.”
By comparison, sport dipping yields far more smelt than the commercials catch – 169,543 pounds versus 27,398 pounds in 2022.