OLYMPIA – The annual run of surf smelt has begun on Hood Canal, but fishing remains closed there for smelt and most other finfish because of low dissolved oxygen levels in the water.
Greg Bargmann, marine fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), said recent storms have helped to oxygenate the water in the 60-mile-long fjord, but not enough to relieve the stress on surf smelt and other marine fish.
"We want to remind fishers that the fishing closure in Hood Canal is still in effect – and that the closure applies to surf smelt," Bargmann said. "Recent winds have helped to stir up the top of the water column, but many marine species remain vulnerable to low-oxygen conditions below about 30 feet."
To ease pressure on those stocks, WDFW issued a broad-based fishing closure Oct. 21 that applies to recreational and commercial fishing for rockfish, smelt, surf perch, herring, flatfish, hake and other forage fish and bottomfish.
Salmon, which can survive higher in the water column, are the only finfish exempt from the fishing closure.
This is the first time that popular fisheries for surf smelt and other marine fish have been closed on Hood Canal for environmental reasons, Bargmann said. Surf smelt, which spawn on beaches throughout the canal from November through February, normally draw scores of fishers who use long-handled dip nets to scoop up limits of 10 pounds per person.
"I wish I could tell people when the Hood Canal closure will end, but it's really up to Mother Nature," said Bargmann, who suggests Ross Point near Port Orchard as a nearby alternative for dipping smelt. "We know we don't want to add pressure on stocks that are already living under extreme conditions."
Although autumn winds have helped to oxygenate the top of the water column, dissolved oxygen levels at depths below 30 feet are still low enough to be lethal for some fish and marine invertebrates in Hood Canal, Bargmann said. Test dives conducted by WDFW have found dead and dying sea cucumbers at various points along the canal and many shrimp infested with parasitic bryozoan – a condition likely related to the low oxygen levels in the water.
Bargmann said WDFW will continue to review dissolved-oxygen monitoring data provided by the Washington Department of Ecology to determine when fishing can resume in Hood Canal.
"We'll let the public know just as soon as we have a clear sign that water-quality levels have improved," Bargmann said.