Smelt fishing will likely soon require a license in Washington state


Gov. Jay Inslee will soon likely sign a bill into law that will require Washington smelt dippers to get a license before they wade out with their nets. 

Recreational fishing licenses have been required to harvest basically any fish, crustacean or seaweed from Washington waters. Up until now, the only animals that could be harvested without a license were crawfish, carp, bullfrogs and freshwater smelt. 

With the passing of this law, a recreational fishing or shellfishing license will be required when fishing for smelt, carp or crawfish, but an angler with existing fishing licenses would not need to purchase a specific smelt, crawfish or carp license. 

Licensing for these catches isn't about collecting more license fees but to have a way to enforce overfishing of smelt or illegal salmon fishing, Tom McBride, legislative director for Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, said during a House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee hearing for the bill. 

A one-day fishing license for smelt would be between $8 and $12, according to the legislation. 

Because licenses aren't currently required for carp and smelt fishing, McBride said it gives people who may really be violating the catch restrictions on other fish an out.

"When we think people are illegally fishing for salmon, they say, 'Oh no, I'm carp fishing. I don't have to have a license.'" 

When smelt was listed as an endangered species in 2010, the Department of Fish and Wildlife put a pause on all smelt harvesting, commercial and recreational, for the next four years.

As the fish's threat level was considered "low," the National Marine Fisheries Service worked with the state wildlife department to slowly allow commercial harvesting again, collecting and monitoring data of the catches commercial fisheries would bring in. 

Meanwhile, requiring a license to hunt for an invasive species like crawfish will give more opportunities for licensees to learn how to identify those species they shouldn't introduce to sensitive watersheds, McBride said. 

"One of the important things you can learn by having a license is don't move nonnative species from one watershed into another one," McBride said. "People usually pick up a booklet when they buy a license, and that's our entry into that education and outreach."

But some fishing enthusiasts believe there are other options and that requiring a license is a hindrance to an already short and sporadic smelt fishery. 

Korey Gillespie, an employee at a sporting goods store in Longview, will use smelt as bait when he can get his hands on some. Instead of requiring a license, he would rather see more game wardens hired to patrol the area.

"You already only have about five hours to fish," Gillespie said. "We shouldn't need a license for such a short period of time."

According to smelt harvest data collected by Fish and Wildlife, commercial smelt harvesting on average makes up less than 10% of the total pounds harvested from the Mainstem Columbia River and the Cowlitz River. 

When recreational fisheries open on the Cowlitz, harvest numbers have averaged 133,153 pounds a year, with an average harvest rate of 1.35%. Harvest rate is the number of fish caught in proportion to the number of smelt running that year. 

WDFW estimated that during the five-hour fishery on Feb. 15, about 8,600 dip-netters harvested almost 54,000 pounds of smelt out of the Cowlitz. 

The law, when signed, will go into effect 90 days after the legislative session ends.