Abstract: Fisheries for Surf Smelt Hypomesus pretiosus in the inland marine waters of Washington State are currently managed under the assumption that annual recreational harvest is roughly similar to commercial harvest. Commercial harvest is monitored by submission of mandatory fish tickets that document sales to licensed vendors. Assessment of recreational effort and harvest is complicated by (1) the lack of a licensing requirement for fishers, (2) the fact that fishing occurs throughout the year but tends to peak during locally specific time windows, and (3) the ability of anglers to engage in the fishery from private shorelines in addition to public access points (e.g., boat ramps). To adequately estimate recreational harvest, a survey method must be developed that accounts for spatiotemporally diverse harvest patterns. Here, we report the results of a pilot study that combined access-point and roving, boat-based creel survey techniques to sample a known region of high recreational fishing pressure during the traditional fishing “season” for Surf Smelt. In addition to providing a statistically valid estimate of harvest at these locations, we described patterns of both fishing effort and catch across time, in association with various environmental variables, and at public access points and private beaches. We found that based on the sitespecific estimates generated here and the number of high-use recreational fishing sites in Puget Sound, Surf Smelt harvest has the capacity to exceed the level that has been assumed for purposes of management. We conclude that combining access-point surveys and roving creel counts represents a logistically feasible and cost-effective method for estimating recreational harvest of Surf Smelt throughout Puget Sound or harvest in any other fishery with similarly complex spatiotemporal participation.
“Can you imagine making your family’s budget without knowing how much is available to spend? That is essentially what’s happening with smelt.”
Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society and Ginny Broadhurst of the Northwest Straits Commission recently wrote a joint statement calling for increased investment in the study of the small schooling fishes that form a foundation for the food web of the Salish Sea:
On April 11th the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will hear from the public about a proposed rule change regarding fishing for surf smelt. Smelt are small fish – the type you might use as bait to catch larger fish. We’re used to arguing about salmon, the “catch,” not the bait, so this is a novel concept to many. But smelt, along with herring, sand lance, eulachon and other small schooling fish, are food for iconic larger fish like salmon and lingcod, amazing diving birds such as puffins and murres, and marine mammals including harbor porpoise, so talking about the bait is important.
This proposed rule addresses smelt, one of the only two baitfish species that are harvested both commercially and recreationally. Naturally this is sparking controversy among user groups. Commercial and recreational fishermen believe the smelt are doing fine and want to keep harvesting them while a cadre of bird watchers see these small fish as the key to recovering many marine bird species in decline and are looking for stronger protection. The problem is not the controversy, but that we haven’t made the commitment necessary to have the data we need to have a meaningful conversation about smelt.
We applaud the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s attention to this small fish. Our concern is the continued lack of investment in gathering information needed to intelligently manage our valuable marine resources, in this case smelt. Can you imagine making your family’s budget without knowing how much is available to spend? That is essentially what’s happening with smelt. We are making an important decision about possibly curtailing commercial and recreational harvest without really knowing how large the smelt population is, which makes it awfully hard to know how much we can sustainably harvest.
For years the SeaDoc Society, the Northwest Straits Commission, and a suite of others, have worked with limited budgets to study and draw needed attention to these small, energy-rich fish that feed larger species. But this might be like having a bake sale to fund a war. We spend billions of dollars gathering information for national security or tracking economic indicators. In contrast, we have consistently underfunded the intelligence gathering needed to understand the important foundations of our ecosystem. The Salish Sea is an important economic driver for our region. It provides food for our tables, as well as recreation, jobs, and a quality of life that attracts top businesses to the region. As citizens of Washington, we should demand more attention to important baitfish populations.
Smelt feed on plankton and they become an energy-rich source of food for people, fish and birds. The so-called “bottom of the food web” is critical to the rest of the food web and warrants our attention. It is time to provide the financial resources that the state and tribes need to better understand how we can safely both harvest them and leave enough for the fish and wildlife. It is time to work with our Canadian neighbors to fund and develop a comprehensive and meaningful plan for baitfish restoration and protection throughout the Salish Sea. Let’s act like the health of the Salish Sea ecosystem and our economy depend upon these unsung heroes, because they do.
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Photo: Juvenile sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus) (top) and surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus) (bottom) collected on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Scale is in inches. USGS photograph by David Ayers. Courtesy EarthFix photo stream on Flickr.
Project update 2015
This study has been published in the peer reviewed journal, the North American Journal of Fisheries Management. Get the details.
According to the author, based on the results of this study the Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to assess smelt harvest at several sites in 2016, bringing a Sound-wide estimate of harvest one step closer to reality.
Additionally, in 2015 the Washington Legislature fully funded two important studies that will help the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife take the next step in understanding and protecting forage fish populations.
The first study will inventory forage fish spawning beaches throughout Puget Sound and the second will conduct mid-water trawl surveys to estimate the biomass of adult forage fish. Expect the results of both studies in 2017.
Project update June 2014
On June 16, 2014, the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission released new smelt fishing rules that limit harvest in order to protect valuable species.
The new policy:
- Adds a new 60,000-pound annual quota for the Puget Sound commercial smelt fishery.
- Reduces the commercial fishery by one day each week, allowing commercial fishing from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday during seasonal openings in each area.
- Closes inactive commercial smelt fisheries, including dip bag and purse seine, which have not been in use for at least 10 years.
- Closes nighttime recreational dip net fishing. Recreational dip net fishing will be allowed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Tuesday. Jig gear can continue to be used seven days per week, 24 hours per day.
Population abundance estimates are not available for smelt. However, Puget Sound-wide commercial catch and catch rates indicate relatively high harvest over the last several years. The commission also requested an annual review of the commercial and recreational smelt fisheries in Puget Sound.
SeaDoc would still like to see the Commission require recreational licenses so that it could determine how much smelt is being harvested recreationally. Also, we’d like to see Washington State determine the total biomass of smelt so that we can have evidence that the harvest is sustainable.
In 2012, SeaDoc funded a study to determine the size of the recreational harvest of Surf Smelt in Washington State.
Why not just have anglers report their catch like we do with salmon and crab?
Strangely enough, Surf Smelt is the one marine fish that you DON’T need a state fishing license to catch.
As one of our very important forage fishes, smelt have a critical place in the Salish Sea food web. Knowing the recreational catch is important so we can determine if harvest is impacting smelt populations or the other fish, birds and mammals that depend on smelt for food.
A creel survey is pretty straightforward: staff from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife go out to popular fishing spots, interview smelt anglers and examine their harvest to find out how much they caught.
Joe Gaydos went along on one of the studies and reported, anecdotally, that most of the people he chatted with were happy to talk to him, already had fishing licenses, and used their catch for food.
Want to see pictures and video of the smelt harvest or learn more about forage fish issues? Read on!
Learn more about SeaDoc’s work on forage fish at the following pages:
- Joe Gaydos’s 2012 letter to the editor of the Seattle Times making the case for why we need to focus on forage fish
- Research on how changes in forage fish availability affect the reproductive success of Common Murres on Tatoosh Island
- An overview of Nacho Vilchis’s project to understand marine bird declines in the Salish Sea
- Summary of the 2011 Forage Fish Needs Assessment Workshop sponsored by SeaDoc and others.
Video (11 seconds; opens in new window):
Alternate link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRCawph2-TA
All video and photos by J. Gaydos.
This entertaining video shows how you can release bloated rockfish to give them a chance at survival. Rockfish are long-lived fish (many live to 100 years or more!) found in the Northeast Pacific ocean. Seven species are considered overfished and several states require these species to be discarded if captured. However throwing these fish overboard often leads to their demise because of pressure-related injuries called barotrauma. Find out why a rockfish gets barotrauma and how to use a variety of recompression devices to help rockfish return to their depth of capture. Have a heart, do your part, and send them back down…