An Ecosystem at Work - Columbia Land Trust
Hundreds of bald eagles swarmed the sky during the most recent smelt run in the Grays River in Wahkiakum County

On a crisp, clear day in Wahkiakum County, Columbia Land Trust steward Austin Tomlinson and his dog Porter hopped into their boat at the Grays River boat launch and started their morning on the water. The pair prepared to head out and meet Land Trust National Area Manager Jeff Malone and the Green Jobs Interns at Devil’s Elbow, a site that sits along the Grays River, to plant 250 spruce trees across the area. 

At Devil’s Elbow, Columbia Land Trust is working to enhance current opportunities to reconnect over 80 acres of river-delta estuarine habitat to the Grays River system, providing fish access to crucial rearing habitat. The area was once a tidal marsh, but now faces the challenges of battling an abundance of invasive weeds. In order to re-establish the native tidal marsh, the Land Trust plants spruce and willow throughout the site when necessary. Planting spruce trees helps shade out weeds, provides nutrients and prey resources into the wetlands, and contributes to the food web from the bottom up. The trees will provide habitat for birds and insects, and eventually, they’ll get big enough and fall over, which will help to naturally restore hydrology even further.

After Tomlinson loaded the spruce seedlings, planting gear, and Porter into the boat, he clipped the last buckle on his life vest and started up the engine. As he and his furry co-captain set out on the river, he noticed eagles on nearly every tree branch and many swarming the bright blue sky. 

To capture the moment, he took out his phone and snapped a video of the majestic view:

“There must have been a few hundred within less than a mile stretch of the river,” Tomlinson said. “I also observed sea lions moving throughout the river.”

With eagles soaring overhead and sea lions swimming nearby, he knew one thing must be certain: there was a smelt run. 

Smelt, or eulachon, is a forage fish that spends 95 percent of its life in the ocean and spawns in rivers along the West Coast. After living in saltwater for its first two to five years, smelt return to the rivers to spawn in late February and March. These runs attract gulls, sea lions, and eagles that like to feast on the small and shiny fish. After spawning, eulachon will die and their eggs will incubate and travel downriver and into the estuaries and ocean. Also known as candlefish, because they are so oily that they can be lit like candles when dried, eulachon is a culturally important species to indigenous communities of the lower Columbia River, including the Chinook and Cowlitz Tribes in Southern Washington.

The schooling fish used to dominate coastal waters as commercial landings brought in millions of pounds of smelt annually from 1938 to 1992. In Washington, smelt dipping was allowed at any time seven days a week, but in 1997 that all changed. The smelt population dwindled in the late 1990s and ultimately collapsed in 2005. In the Columbia River mainstem, commercial landing only brought in as low as 4,820 pounds. With new record low numbers, Oregon and Washington put limitations and restrictions on tributary and recreational smelt dipping for years to come. 

In 2010, the species was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Since then, Oregon and Washington have taken action to develop a recovery plan that will help bring populations back up to more promising numbers. 

Today, there are still limits on recreational smelt dipping, what nets can be used, and how many pounds each individual can bring in. Although last year’s smelt run was relatively low, it was more than previous years’ numbers—which is a good sign if you are a recreational smelt-dipper, angler, or a bald eagle looking for lunch.

The funding for Devil’s Elbow was made possible through the State of Washington’s Salmon Recovery Fund. The ongoing restoration of the land is made possible by the collective support of people like you for our conservation agenda.