Dwindling smelt runs disappoint Cowlitz River dippers

Kelso, Washington (AP) 3-08

Sam Wright of Olympia finds it hard to believe that the once-abundant smelt runs of the Cowlitz River are down to nearly nothing.

The oily 6-inch fish once swarmed so thick that a single dip with a net or bucket was enough to land a person’s daily limit. No one tallied the recreational catch and the commercial harvest was as much as 6 million pounds and an average of 2 million pounds a year until 1993.

No such luck these days. Smelt dippers now often come away without so much as a single fish.

“It’s disheartening,” said Larry Calhoun, 64, of Castle Rock, a retired Boeing Co. worker. “Last year wasn’t any good either.”

In November, the Cowlitz Tribe petitioned for federal protection of smelt under the Endangered Species Act.

“No one else seems to be taking action,” said John Barnett, 73, of Aberdeen, the Cowlitz tribal chairman. “We don’t like to see this part of our culture forever disappear.”

Scott Rumsey, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Portland, Ore., said recently only that his office has made a recommendation on whether to accept the petition.

NOAA rejected a similar petition filed by Wright, a retired state fish biologist, in 1999.

Reasons for the decline are unclear. Wright said it could reflect climate-related changes in the chemical composition of the ocean that affect the availability of microscopic plants and animals that smelt eat.

Smelt once spawned in numerous West Coast rivers but were most prominent in the tributaries of the lower Columbia, where they were met with great delight by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“I find them best when cooked Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preparing whatever,” Capt. Merriwether Lewis wrote in his journal in 1806. “They are so fat they require no additional source, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted, even more delicate and lussious than the white fish of the lakes have heretofore formed my standart of excellence among the fishes.”

Catching smelt when they returned to spawn in late winter required no more than lowering a dip net or bucket into the water near shore.

“Even the most clumsy kid could catch a smelt with a dip net,” Wright said. “It didn’t take any skill at all.”

Kelso once touted itself the “smelt capital of the world.” Towns hosted smelt-eating contests, and families brought camp stoves to the riverside to fry the tasty fish right out of the water.

Today, smelt have vanished from the Sacramento River in California, the Klamath in California and Oregon and the Rogue in Oregon. The Columbia River system, including the Cowlitz, is now the last watershed south of the Canadian border with any smelt runs.

The commercial haul bottomed out at 200 pounds in 2005, followed by some increases but nothing dramatic.

“It’s unbelievable what the abundance was at one time,” Wright said. “Nobody ever thought you could overfish them when every year you would take millions of pounds.”

State fisheries managers did reduce the catch limits after Wright’s initial petition, and Washington and Oregon now manage the run jointly, said Brad W. James, a Washington state fish biologist and manager who said the runs vary largely according to ocean and climate cycles.

James said the predictions are not high this year but added, “We can’t project if it’s going to be an absolute bust or not.”