NOAA lists Pacific smelt as threatened

17 Mar 2010
Pacific smelt. Credit: NOAA

Pacific smelt. Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s Fisheries Service is listing Pacific smelt as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Under the ESA, a “threatened” species is in danger of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. An “endangered” species is one in danger of extinction in all or part of its range.

Pacific smelt, known officially as eulachon, are small ocean-going fish that historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. They return to rivers to spawn in late winter and early spring. This little fish is so high in body fat during spawning that it can be dried, strung on a wick and burned, lending another name to its list of aliases - candlefish. There is a small and widely dispersed commercial and recreational fishery for pacific smelt.

A team of biologists from NOAA’s Fisheries Service and two other federal agencies concluded last year that there are at least two Pacific smelt distinct population segments on the West Coast. The one listed now extends from the Mad River in northern California north into British Columbia. These population segments are different from the endangered delta smelt, a freshwater species found in California's Sacramento River delta.

The Cowlitz Indian tribe in Washington State petitioned NOAA’s Fisheries Service in 2007 to list the fish populations in Washington, Oregon, and California. The tribe’s petition described severe declines in smelt runs along the entire Pacific Coast, with possible local extinctions in California and Oregon.

NOAA’s own scientific review found that this smelt stock is indeed declining throughout its range, and further declines are expected as climate change affects the availability of its prey. Climate change is also expected to change the timing and volume of spring flows in Northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful Pacific smelt spawning and these changes could have a negative effect on spawning success. The agency’s review also concluded that Pacific smelt are vulnerable to being caught in shrimp fisheries in the United States and Canada, because the areas occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap.

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