Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Small Fish with a Long History

I remember back when I was just starting out as a fish biologist, old timers, much like I am now, and even younger co-workers who grew up in the Northwest, would talk about the smelt season. Around this time of year they would talk about taking huge dipnets, standing alongside the banks of the Columbia, Cowlitz, Lewis, and Sandy rivers, and filling 5 gallon buckets with these small fish. It sounded fun and seemed really cool to imagine swarms of fish in such vast numbers, that you could scoop up a full net with one swipe. I also remember as time went by, a little talk about the disappointing smelt runs and pretty soon, hardly any talk about smelt at all.

The Pacific smelt, officially known as the eulachon, is a small anadromous fish, barely 9 inches, which historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. They return to the freshwater in masses to spawn, usually at night. Most adults die shortly after spawning. They are important to Native American tribes, the ocean and freshwater food chains, as well as both commercial and recreational fishers.

Sadly, the numbers are at a historical low right now and the National Oceanic and Atmopheric Administration (NOAA) says that the fish is at “moderate risk of extinction”. On Tuesday, NOAA listed the Pacific smelt as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. You can read more about that here.

“This evening we were visited by Comowool the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women and children of his nation . . . The Chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin, some hats, stergeon and a species of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us by means of skimming or scooping nets . . . I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preparation whatever. They are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever taste, even more delicate and luscious than the white fish of the lakes which hae heretofore formed my standaart of excellence among the fishes.”

From the Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (February 25, 1806)

Photo of drawing reproduced from the Journals of Lewis and Clark (Illustration by Meriwether Lewis from American Philosophical Society)

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