The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a final rule today to designate critical habitat for the Pacific eulachon, a threatened species of smelt, in sixteen coastal rivers and streams in northern California, Oregon and Washington. Like Pacific salmon, these smelt reproduce in coastal rivers, but live in open ocean habitats for the other 95 to 98 percent of their lives. Oceana finds that the government ruling is a step in the right direction, but emphasizes that the failure to designate critical habitat in ocean waters is a major shortcoming and a threat to the recovery of this species.
“It is irresponsible of the agency to ignore the best available science showing that eulachon live the vast majority of their lives in coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean,” said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana. “The agency’s own reports document the distribution of eulachon from research surveys and observed bycatch in commercial fisheries – yet they just chose to ignore this.”
Scientists who prepared a biological review of the status of Pacific eulachon for the agency found that the greatest threats to the recovery of this species are climate change impacts to ocean and river habitats, bycatch in ocean fisheries, dams, and water diversion. According to NMFS reports, the Oregon and California trawl pink shrimp fishery alone, caught and discarded 861,888 eulachon in 2009 and in 2008, 431,514 individual eulachon were taken.
“The bycatch of threatened eulachon is a major impact to the species that must be stopped through a combination of time and area closures, hard bycatch caps, and gear modifications,” says Enticknap. “It’s also a major source of data showing the location of eulachon at sea that the agency should have used to designate critical habitat.”
Eulachon have historically had great cultural and economic importance in the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska. As a small forage fish, they are also of great ecological importance, preyed upon by numerous marine mammals, seabirds, and fish species including green sturgeon, halibut, rockfishes and salmon.
“The decline of the Pacific eulachon highlights the need for comprehensive protections for forage species. Forage fish are highly susceptible to climate change and fishery impacts, but without healthy forage populations, salmon, whales, dolphins and many other species will suffer,” says Enticknap.
The health and biodiversity of the California Current ecosystem depends on how we manage the food web. Oceana will now consider how to proceed with the government on the issue of critical habitat designation for eulachon and measures to ensure the recovery of this species, in addition to working to improve management for all West Coast forage species.