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Smelt are back on the menu

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF BERT PARKER - Ron Neva, owner of NW Wild Products, is pictured with about 1,500 pounds of smelt caught aboard Bert Parkers gillnet boat Meagan Ann. Neva bought 200 pounds of the fish but has had trouble finding a market for them.Pacific smelt are back on the menu for the first time in more than three years at local seafood markets, after a recent decision earlier this month by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.

The small fish are more properly known as Thaleichthys pacificus, candlefish and hooligans.

On average they are 8.5 inches long, weigh 2.5 ounces, and are running between $4 and $5 a pound fresh at local markets since a limited commercial fishery on the Columbia River opened Feb. 10.

It runs through Thursday.

The markets are buying hundreds of pounds at a time. At some locations, they’ve been offering smoked smelt for upward of $10 per pound.

“I can’t find any restaurant to buy them,” said Ron Neva, co-owner of NW Wild Products, about the 200 pounds he bought last week from the fishing vessel Nancy Ann, which had taken in about 1,500 pounds two days earlier.

Restaurants, he said, might be unused to cooking with the fish, because it has been on the Endangered Species List and unavailable for harvest since 2010.

“They used to be the No. 1 bait for sturgeon,” said Neva. “Now with sturgeon (fishing) being closed, there’s not many markets for them.”

Being eaten

Some guides, such as Andy Betnar of World Class Fishing in Astoria, have bought hundreds of pounds of smelt for the catch-and-release sturgeon fishery. But most of the smelt are going toward human consumption.

“We haven’t smoked them for six years,” said Terry Hartill, co-owner of Bell Buoy, a seafood market in Clatsop County. Lately, though, he’s been filling multiple racks in the smoker with the exceptionally soft fish, which are also often breaded, fried and eaten, bones, head tail and all.

Diminishing returns

Since 1992, the average run of smelt, represented by commercial landings, declined by 90 percent, according to a report by Oregon’s and Washington’s Departments of Fish and Wildlife. Landings averaged 20,000 pounds, or 1 percent of their pre-1993 levels, for 12 straight years, as a result of fishery restrictions in response to low abundance.

In 2010, the southern population segment of smelt were placed on the Endangered Species List. The southern populations encompass smelt in Washington, Oregon and California, extending from the Skeena River in British Columbia south to the Mad River in Northern California.

“It is harder to monitor the smelt numbers,” said Anthony Siniscal, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Our best tool for monitoring smelt numbers is having people fish for them.”

A joint state report said conservation-level fisheries would provide the opportunity to gather fishery landing and pounds per landing data to help assess the strength of smelt runs in the Columbia.

Indicators for 2014 don’t yet point to a declining or improving return of smelt.

Mismanagement

Gary Soderstrom, who has been fishing smelt off and on for the last 20 years, said smelt are a case of mismanagement by the agencies. “There was no reason for them to be listed,” he said.

“They went as far last year as writing people tickets for picking up … dead smelt off the beach.”

In March 2013, reports came in of a 20-mile-long mass of smelt moving up the Columbia and near the Cowlitz River. The run last year was one of the best in a decade based on larval counts, and 2014 is expected to be similar.

The National Marine Fisheries Service identified climate change and its effects on ocean conditions as the most serious threat to smelt populations. Out of 16 major threats to smelt, commercial fishing was listed as the ninth worst, and recreational fishing 13th.

States with the populations took precautionary action after the species listing as endangered, prohibiting commercial sales from the Columbia and its tributaries starting Dec. 10, 2010. Recreational fisheries closed Jan. 1, 2011.

Limited seasons

Commercial smelt fishing using 2-inch nets has been permitted from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. for eight days on the Columbia, on Mondays and Thursdays, ending in three days. That means a potentially limited time period to find smelt in the markets.

No commercial dipping in the tributaries was allowed. A limited recreational fishery was opened, with dipping from the bank allowed in Oregon’s Sandy River from 6 a.m. to noon March 1 to 22, with a limit of 10 pounds per person per day. On the Cowlitz River, a limited recreational fishery was opened between 6 a.m. and noon Feb. 8 through March 1, again with a limit of 10 pounds per person per day.

The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife still lists Pacific smelt as endangered. It remains to be seen how a limited fishery will help change that.

There are also efforts to measure the smelt run by counting the number of eggs and larvae. But the fish are small and spawn out of sight, making them difficult to count. Other ventures are trying to measure runs with sonar.