Species on the brink
Biologist works to crack the mystery of what happened to the Sandy River smelt
In past decades, it was always big news in East County when the oily, delicious Pacific smelt entered the Sandy River by the millions during the spring to spawn future generations - and possibly become someone's meal of the day.
These days, the once-abundant Pacific smelt - officially known by the Chinook word 'eulachon' - is officially a threatened species in danger of becoming extinct.
Even in the decades before the species was declared threatened, the number of southern eulachon entering the Sandy River and other Columbia River tributaries to spawn had drastically declined to the point where the once-popular pastime of smelt fishing had nearly ceased.
A collection of scientists, Indian tribes and federal and state agencies now are trying to find out why and what can be done.
Washington state's Cowlitz Indians successfully lobbied to have the southern eulachon listed as threatened in 2010 under the umbrella of the federal Endangered Species Act, identifying the species as in danger of becoming extinct.
Since the southern eulachon were listed as threatened, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the federal National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), is trying to determine the extent of the eulachons' habitat and what, if any, protective measures are needed.
The Cowlitz Tribe has received a three-year grant to study the Columbia River tributaries, such as the Sandy River, where the eulachon often go to spawn.
Craig Olds, a eulachon biologist working with the Cowlitz Indians, said his team of six people is surveying the Sandy River and 11 other rivers in southwest Washington.
The hope is that his research will help Fisheries Service develop a management plan that describes how the southern eulachon can be conserved and eventually removed from the threatened species designation.
The southern eulachons' ocean habitats range from northern California to southern British Columbia, Canada.
Olds said the team has already collected eulachon larvae in the Cowlitz, Grays and Elochoman rivers and in Skamokawa Creek for study, he said.
'There is evidence that the eulachon are returning, but in very small numbers,' he said, noting it would take thousands of tons of southern eulachon to maintain a healthy population.
Last year, Olds' research team expanded the known area of the eulachons' spawning grounds to include the Washougal, East Fork Lewis and Toutle rivers and the Abernathy, Mill and Germany creeks in Washington.
The research also found that the eulachon were spawning several miles farther up the Grays, Elochoman and Kalama rivers than previously surveyed.
Olds wasn't able to survey the Sandy River last year because of budget limits, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have found that eulachon still spawn there, he said.
This year, the team is surveying the Sandy River three times a week, making stops at Lewis and Clark, Dabney and Oxbow parks.
Mike Morris, a lead field biologist, said he still has not found any eulachon larvae in the Sandy River since he started surveying the river about a month ago.
That's a good sign, Morris said, because it means he hasn't missed the hatching of the eulachon eggs, which occur 20 to 40 days after the eggs are laid at the bottom of the river.
'Once we start finding larvae, we may be out there seven days a week trying to figure out where the spawning ground is,' Olds said. 'We're hoping there's more than one spawning ground, but there may just be one.'
If the survey team finds that the eulachon have the same spawning grounds in the Sandy River next year, Olds said, it will help locate the eulachons' preferred habitat, the place where they have the greatest chance of survival.
Olds also hopes to survey the Willamette River, where he expects eulachon will be found.
Smelt runs popular on Sandy River
The eulachon normally dwell in the Pacific Ocean, but return to freshwater sources like the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers every few years to spawn. If there were enough, they would push on into the Sandy River and as far up the Columbia River as Bonneville Dam.
The abundance of eulachon in the Sandy River varied year to year. When the eulachon did enter the Sandy River, they usually went no farther than the Stark Street bridge, although some accounts said they traveled as far as Gordon Creek.
On one Sunday in March 1940, more than 7,000 people flocked to Troutdale - which had a population of about 200 at the time - to catch eulachon along the Sandy River. People caught the smelt from boats or by dipping nets, buckets or birdcages into the river.
Len Otto, a Troutdale historian who grew up along the Sandy River, welcomes the efforts to protect the smelt, noting he has fond memories of the days when they would return to the river. His father Glenn Otto, who served as mayor and state legislator, would open his house's front yard by the Troutdale bridge to a hamburger stand, fishing net rentals and sales of smelt by the pound.The Sandy River also experienced dry spells of eulachon; one lasted from 1958 to 1974.
According to NOAA, commercial eulachon harvests from the Columbia River and its tributaries averaged 2 million pounds a year from 1938 to 1992, the largest catch being 5.7 million pounds in 1945.
From 1993 to 2006, however, the commercial catch averaged 43,000 pounds, a drop of almost 98 percent.
The last big Sandy River eulachon runs were in 2003 and 2001, when the fish returned after a 12-year absence.
Elsewhere, the southern eulachon are nearly extinct in the Klamath, Mad, Redwood and Sacramento rivers, according to NOAA. Canada also has listed the eulachon on its threatened species list, as rivers in British Columbia also have seen significant declines.
Exact reasons for the decline are unknown.
NOAA speculates that several factors including habitat loss and degradation, pollution, river dredging and global climate change may all play roles.
Olds' team is looking at how hydroelectric dams, hatcheries, pollution and other factors affect the eulachon population.
'My idea is it's not just one thing; it's probably a number of different impacts over time,' Olds said. 'We need to know more about the impacts so we can recognize what happened.'
The management plan may not be completed any time soon. Because of federal budget cuts, NOAA has experienced reduced funding as well.
Olds said there's a possibility that the eulachon can be restored to a healthy population, although it may take several years at least.
'The fact is that not enough fish are coming back to increase the population as far as we know, so there's a risk we may lose the population itself,' he said.
If that happens, the healthier northern populations of eulachon, which are found off Alaska and British Columbia, Canada, may replace the southern populations.
'If the impacts that knocked out the original population remain, you're not going to be able to do much (to restore the local eulachon population),' Olds said.
'If nothing else, Mother Nature may restore the population.'