More than a dozen West Coast creeks, rivers and estuaries were designated Thursday as critical smelt habitat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) named the fish as threatened last year, and this habitat designation is the latest step in protecting the species.
The new decision means any activities receiving federal dollars must avoid disturbing 335 miles of waterways. The Klamath, Columbia and Umpqua rivers are included in the designation.
NOAA marine biologist Marc Romano said smelt – also known as eulachon – swim in different spots and at different times than salmon and bull trout.
“In lower section of many of the rivers of the lower Columbia River Basin, eulachon are spawning, yet these areas are not typically spawning areas for some of the other species that have designated critical habitats,” he said.
Romano said the designation also plays an important role in educating the public about the threatened species.
“Eulachon used to be so abundant that people, I think, took them for granted. So they weren’t very well studied,” he said.
That presents problems when trying to determine the exact numbers of population declines. However, Romano said, smelt caught in commercial fisheries on the Columbia River and in Canada have decreased so significantly over the past 30 years that the fisheries are now closed.
Ocean waters were excluded from this designation, upsetting some conservation groups in the region. Smelt spend most of their lifespan in the ocean, leaving fresh water as larval fish and returning once to spawn and die. Members of the conservation group Oceana say that restricting when and where ocean fishing happens will help smelt populations.
“The bycatch of threatened eulachon is a major impact to the species that must be stopped through a combination of time and area closures, hard bycatch caps, and gear modifications,” Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana, said in a statement. “It’s also a major source of data showing the location of eulachon at sea that the agency should have used to designate critical habitat.”
Historically Pacific smelt have swum in waters from northern California to the Bering Sea, but populations have declined in recent years. NOAA scientists expect numbers to continue to dwindle as climate change disrupts both spring snowmelt and smelt prey.