NOAA fisheries to consider protection for smelt

Portland, Oregon (AP) 3-08

The NOAA Fisheries Service says it will accept a petition from the Cowlitz Tribe in Washington to list smelt populations in Oregon, Washington and California for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The petition, filed in November, describes sharp drops in Pacific Coast runs and possible local extinctions in Oregon and California.

Smelt, also known as eulachon or candlefish, are small, oceangoing fish with a historic range stretching from California to the Bering Sea.

They return to rivers in late winter and early spring and are caught in dip nets by fishermen, who usually fry and eat them, often whole. Some also are caught from ocean beaches.

The Columbia River smelt was first described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806. He praised the fatty fish for its excellent taste. It has cultural significance to native tribes.

It once was so abundant that there was no season, limit or required license for the catch.

The petition seeks designation of smelt populations south of the Canadian border as a “distinct population segment,” which would allow NOAA to consider a subgroup of the larger species for protection.

A NOAA proposal could come by fall, followed by a year of peer review, public comment and public hearings.