Scott Learn / The Oregonian

When the Obama administration set aside “critical habitat” for smelt last week it included the Columbia River and many of its tributaries near Portland. It didn’t include smelt-heavy sections of the ocean, where the small but significant “forage fish” spend 95 percent of their lives.

That’s raised objections from conservation groups, who say threats to smelt in the ocean — notably, bycatch in Oregon’s thriving pink shrimp fishery — need to be addressed if the fish are to move off the endangered species list.

Pacific smelt, or eulachon, once swarmed from the ocean up the Columbia, Cowlitz, Lewis and Sandy rivers in massive spring migrations. But their numbers are at or near historical lows. The fish is at “moderate risk of extinction,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said when it listed the species as threatened last year.

Smelt and other forage fish feed on plankton and are eaten by other marine animals, including salmon, forming an important part of the marine food web.

May have small effect

Designating critical habitat for smelt on rivers may not change much. Smelt fishing on the Columbia and elsewhere has already been curtailed, and previous listings of wild salmon and steelhead are already incorporated into regulations governing dam operations and dredging projects.

But counting parts of the ocean frequented by smelt as critical habitat could have had big repercussions, particularly for shrimp fishermen.

The shrimp fishery off Oregon and California pulled in an incidental catch of some 800,000 smelt in 2009, the last year of available data, the conservation group Oceana says. NOAA listed bycatch in the shrimp fishery as the second biggest threat to Columbia River smelt last year, after climate change effects in the ocean.

NOAA fish biologist Marc Romano, based in Portland, said there wasn’t enough specific data about smelt’s migratory pathways to designate critical habitat in the ocean. The agency is aware of the ocean issues, including bycatch, and could take other steps to address it, he said, though there’s not a specific timetable for restricting bycatch.

‘Concerned about bycatch’

Under endangered species law, “we have to be concerned about bycatch because that is a take of a listed species,” Romano said. “That’s something we will be taking a very hard look at.”

Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific project manager, said data from the shrimp fishery itself pinpoints spots along the West Coast where smelt are abundant. That data could be used for “time and area” closures, shutting fishing in spots or at certain times. The fishery also needs a cap on total smelt bycatch, he said, as the whiting fishery faces with certain species of rockfish.

“If they’re not avoiding the fish we need to know that in real time and be able to close the fishery or move them out of specific areas,” Enticknap said. “The fishery is a real and tangible impact we can do something to manage.”

Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, said the shrimp fishery has worked for years with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce smelt bycatch.

For the past three decades, the fishery’s annual catch has averaged 26 million pounds a year, with the season running from April 1 to Oct. 31. Fishermen run nets along muddy or sandy portions of the ocean floor, in recent years using fish “excluder grates” to reduce bycatch.

In 2007, almost universal use of the grates helped make Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery the first shrimp fishery in the world certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

This year, prodded by the ESA listing of smelt, ODFW required the fleet to reduce gaps in the excluder grates to 1 inch. Next year, that will drop to 3⁄4 of an inch, still allowing the fishermen to nab shrimp but decreasing numbers of smelt that make it into the nets.

A 2010 ODFW study showed a 16 percent reduction of smelt bycatch by moving from 1-inch spacing to 3⁄4-inch spacing, with no reduction in the shrimp harvest.

Oregon’s shrimp fishery has also cut total fishing time to an eighth of its high in the 1980s, Pettinger said, and dropped from a high of roughly 300 vessels to 60 today.

“The industry has been very proactive on trying to minimize impacts,” he said. “If you think about the vastness of the ocean, the amount of impact shrimp fishers are having is pretty minimal.”

Most smelt from Columbia River Basin

Pacific smelt typically spend three to five years in saltwater from Northern California to Alaska before returning to freshwater to spawn from late winter through midspring.

In the portion of the species’ range that lies south of the U.S.-Canadian border — the population addressed by the endangered species listing — most smelt originate in the Columbia River basin.

Direct fishing for smelt has dropped substantially. Smelt caught by commercial fishermen in the Columbia and its tributaries hit a high of roughly 62 million in 1945, NOAA estimates. The 2009 count was about 200,000 fish, In late 2010, Oregon and Washington closed smelt fisheries.