WA Commission Hears Smelt, Crayfish, Carp License Proposal

Should Washington smelt dippers, crawdad catchers and carp anglers be required to have a fishing license?

The Fish and Wildlife Commission heard an early briefing on the matter this morning as WDFW began talking about “possible” agency requests for the 2023 state legislature.


Right now you don’t need a license for freshwater smelt – also known as eulachon – crayfish and common carp. They’re exempted by state law.

It’s a great value, but also utterly unlike with all other regulated fish and shellfish in Washington – Chinook, coho, winter steelhead, summer steelhead, rainbow trout, halibut, sturgeon, lingcod, largemouth, crappie and even unwanted invasive northern pike all require a license, whether you’re fishing for the table or catch-and-release.

When WDFW opened the lower Cowlitz in early March for smelt, an estimated 16,000-plus people turned out for the opportunity, but among those who exceeded their daily limit, many didn’t have a fishing license, according to Tom McBride, WDFW’s legislative liaison.

That touches on the idea behind the proposal: educating the public.

“Our belief is that most persons attending the March 5, 2022 smelt dip on the Cowlitz River were not intentionally violating the 10-pound limit, and purchasing a license will educate them to the rules and restrictions of these fisheries,” said McBride. “This seems especially important as there are more people in the state and more participation in various fisheries.”

WDFW lists an annual freshwater license at $29.50, a one-day combo license at $11.35, a two-day at $15.75 and a three-day $19.05.

The knee-jerk reaction will be that WDFW is just trying to figure out ways to milk more money out people, but McBride says that is not the case.

“We’re not looking for revenue here,” he told commissioners.

The idea to remove the license exemption for smelt, crawfish and carp came from WDFW’s Fish Program, which oversees fisheries across the state.

Of the trio, smelt ranked as the most important in terms of requiring a license, McBride said.

Columbia River eulachon were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010 after years of decline and dipping was closed from 2011 through 2013. But then WDFW successfully got NMFS to OK limited “research fisheries,” which involve commercial test netting on the mainstem that helps inform biologists about run strength and composition, and whether enough are headed for the Cowlitz for an all-citizens’ opener.

Those have occurred in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2021 and 2022. Over those years, the cumulative sport harvest is nearly 10 times as large as the commercial, roughly 930,000 pounds to 94,000 pounds*.

It’s been great to see the smelt run pick back up and the fishery able to return, albeit now in once- or twice-a-year five-hour openers, a far, far cry from the 1980s when dipping was literally open year-round with 20-pound daily limits. It’s important to the community and connects folks with the river and the fish. Many smoke their catch, while others use them for sturgeon bait.

But to provide the opportunity also requires a fair amount of forecasting, report writing, inseason data crunching and monitoring.

Then there’s the intensive policing. Two thousand, eight hundred pounds of overlimits smelt were seized in March. True, some folks probably didn’t realize they went overboard, but 38 citations were written and in one case, every tool compartment of a construction truck had been filled with smelt. Worse still is that efforts to donate the fish to useful causes netted no takers, so the fish had to be dumped.

The past two years WDFW has also set up numerous booths along the Cowlitz to talk to smelt dippers about their catch and sample specimens for biological data.

A graph for another presentation today showed that roughly one-quarter of WDFW’s budget goes to managing fisheries.

As for crawdads, requiring a license might lead crayfishers to read the pamphlet, learn to identify nonnative crayfish and keep them instead of putting them back in the water, McBride said.

And with carp, he said it would close a loophole where anglers actually fishing for salmon or steelhead at, say, Drano Lake might claim to be out for carp and thus not need a license.

“I’m in favor of exploring this. It makes sense to me to close these loopholes,” said Commissioner Jim Anderson of Buckley, pointing to management of the natural resources.

The commission also talked about a possible legislative proposal around making mandatory game check station stops to increase monitoring for chronic wasting disease – discovered in Idaho last fall not far south of Lewiston – and other diseases striking Washington’s deer herd in recent years.

Per McBride, the next step with these and two other potential agency-request bills discussed today will be to talk them over with stakeholders this month and next, and then return to the commission in August with possibly tweaked proposals for a decision on whether to advance them to state lawmakers.

Essentially, today was a baby step in a long process. Assuming the commission gives its stamp of approval to running a license bill in Olympia next year, it would then need to be written up, sponsored and introduced into the legislature, have hearings before either the House or Senate natural resource committees, pass out of that panel and be taken up by the chamber, be passed over to the other body and passed there, get reconciled if needed, and then be signed by the governor before going into effect, likely well after 2023’s smelt run but around the peak of crawdad and carp seasons.

In other business, members approved acquiring the 129-acre Martha Lake fishing access site off I-90 by George in Central Washington. WDFW has leased the site for nearly 50 years from WashDOT, which recently surplussed it and gave the agency the first right of refusal before selling it on the market.

The timeline to buy it was compressed due to the June 30 end of the fiscal year and the transportation department’s obligation for a timely sale of excess property.

Located in Vice Chair Molly Linville’s “backyard” – or at least a little past her Douglas County ranch’s back fence – she said the site provided an easy-access bank fishery for diverse anglers.

“I understand procedure but losing this for the public would be a much graver issue,” Linville said.

The commission voted 8-0-1 in favor of the purchase. Cost was listed at $379,000.

Members also turned down a petition to allow hunters 65 and older to use crossbows during the deer and elk archery seasons, as recommended by WDFW hunting managers.

There was also briefings around initial budget needs to present to the legislature, including large sums for hatchery production expansion for killer whales and facility maintenance.

Correction, 9:12 p.m., June 10, 2022: The initial version of this blog incorrectly stated the recreational and commercial smelt catches for fisheries since 2014 because the editor can’t adds right. The initial figure did not include 2022 catches for both user groups but has since been updated, bringing down the recreational harvest from 11 to roughly 10 times the commercial take.