Pacific smelt, a small silvery fish also known as eulachon or candlefish, has been listed by NOAA as a threatened species due to declining populations.
Pacific smelt was a staple of the Northwest American Indian tribes when the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived on the west coast in 1806. Lewis was impressed enough with smelt as a food source while spending the winter on the Oregon coast that he drew a picture of the fish in his journal.
Historically, their numbers were so abundant one could literally ‘rake’ them out of the rivers. Times have changed. “The tribe just had its annual eulachon ceremony a few weeks ago and there were none for us to dip. Our nets were empty,” Taylor Aalvik, director of the Cowlitz tribe’s Natural Resources Department, said in a statement.
There are two distinct populations of smelt in the Pacific Ocean. The endangered population ranges from the Mad River in Northern California to the Skeena River in British Columbia. Similar to salmon, they lay their eggs in rivers and then spend the rest of their lives in the ocean. The second population is found in Alaska and the Bering Sea.
Reasons for the decline include shrimp fishing (caught as bi-catch), decreased water flows in rivers, reductions in zooplankton (food for smelt) and global warming. The effect of declining numbers of Pacific smelt is unclear. The concern is that it will impact birds, fish and other creatures higher up in the food chain. Current salmon restoration efforts should help the beleaguered smelt populations by reducing the amount of silt in rivers where they deposit their eggs.
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