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Originally published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 4:02 PM

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Discussions under way about a possible smelt season this year

Any chance to harvest smelt would be on a limited basis

Seattle Times staff reporter

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There was a time when millions of migrating Pacific smelt would jam the Lower Columbia River en route to tributaries, while thousands of sport dip-netters lined the shores to catch them by the bucket loads.

By the late 1990s, these small silver-colored fish started falling off the map, and fisheries dwindled to the point where National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in spring of 2010.

Smelt have been off-limits to fishermen since 2011, and that means even touching them dead or alive is a no-no.

Then, by surprise, smelt began reappearing in extremely strong numbers last spring. A mass of smelt about 20 miles long was seen in the Columbia mainstem from Longview up to Bonneville Dam, and in the Cowlitz, Toutle, Kalama, Lewis and Sandy rivers.

Dead, spawned-out smelt littered the shoreline with birds and sea lions being the only ones able to gorge on the oily fish. State Fish and Wildlife enforcement officials cited some people who came into contact with smelt, and some brazenly took advantage of the good return by illegally harvesting them.

During a recent sport advisory group meeting, state fisheries managers toyed with the idea of possibly allowing a limited smelt harvest in the Columbia River this coming season.

“We discussed some different options after the big run last year,” said Ron Roler, the state Fish and Wildlife Columbia River policy coordinator. “If we decide on moving forward, it wouldn’t be a free-for-all, and possibly a way to gain some data from the run. We’ll be working with NMFS on options for the future, but nothing is set in stone and it’s still an ongoing negotiation.”

Some possibilities include a one-day-per-week sport fishery or a small commercial bobber-net test fishery in a couple different areas.

Pacific smelt cover the West Coast from northern California up to the Bering Sea in Alaska. Locally, they return to spawn in late winter and early spring, and spend about three to five years in the ocean. There’s a small population that migrates into Puget Sound.

Shellfish harvest opens on a few beaches

Belfair State Park in Mason County on Hood Canal now is open through Aug. 31 after state Fish and Wildlife surveys found the clam population can sustain a longer season. The Belfair oyster season is open year-round.

Point Whitney Lagoon in Jefferson County near Brinnon is open through March 15 for clams. The clam population has decreased, and an earlier season is expected to lure less people.

The clam and oyster season at Fort Flagler State Park near Port Townsend is open now through April 15, and May 15 through Dec. 31. The split season avoids a one-month seaweed season.

Many other Hood Canal beaches also are currently open for either oysters or clams. Check the state Fish and Wildlife website at for specific beaches. Before hitting a beach, call the shellfish hotline at 866-880-5431. or 206-464-8780



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