by Eric Wagner
This article was first published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
A river spawning species of forage fish known as the longfin smelt is rare and getting rarer in the Salish Sea. Biologists are looking into the mysterious decline of the ‘hooligans’ of Bellingham Bay.
The bridge closest to the mouth of the Nooksack River is a few miles outside of Bellingham, on a long, winding road called Marine Drive. If you want to see the bridge to greatest advantage, the middle of November probably isn’t the best time to visit.
The afternoon sky today is a sullen gray, the low clouds heavy and spitting rain. Every so often a car or truck will race over the bridge, sending up a plume of stormwater spray. The river, meanwhile, rushes on under the bridge, the tide flowing out towards Bellingham Bay. Mud has turned the water the color of creamy coffee. The current carries a large battered log, thumps it into one of the bridge supports, bears it on. As a scene it is, in sum, pretty glum.
A perfect day for hooligans, in other words.
“This is the kind of weather hoolies like,” says Rachael Mallon, a biologist with the Salish Sea Research Center at the Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation. “An outgoing tide, a big rain event so visibility in the river is low and they’re safer from predators — conditions are definitely on our side.”
Mallon is standing above the eastern bank of the Nooksack a short distance upstream of the bridge. She holds a dip net — a long, metal pole on the end of which is a large basket of wire mesh — and carefully steps down onto a mud-slick rock. She reaches the net out over the river and drops it in with a splash, taking care to angle it downstream so the fish will swim into it. (“The current really wants to flip it around,” she says.) After a couple of minutes she heaves the net out of the water. Other than a couple of twigs and leaves, it is empty.
“Nada!” Mallon says. She shrugs with what seems a characteristic good cheer, and back goes the net into the river with a wet plop!
Hooligan — hoolie for short — is the local sobriquet for longfin smelt. Longfin smelt (also known by their traditional Lummi name ‘Tiokowe’) are a small forage fish, and the Nooksack is the only river in the Salish Sea that anyone knows of that hosts a significant breeding population with an associated fishery.
For about two weeks, usually starting around Veteran’s Day, hordes of hooligans swim up the river to spawn, following the bottom of the river or hugging the banks. And for about two weeks people line those banks — enrolled members of the Lummi tribe on the western bank closest to the reservation, everyone else on the eastern bank — to dip as many fish out of the river as they can.
But the hordes of hooligans have not been as bountiful of late, and, as everyone from scientists to tribal managers try to figure out why, they have had to confront a central tenet of hooligan biology: locally popular though the little fish may be, not much is known about them.
A Mysterious Decline
Longfin smelt are widely distributed along the west coast of the United States and Canada, with populations ranging from Alaska south to central California. The population in the San Francisco Bay delta may be the most closely studied on account of its rarity, sitting as it does at the center of a heated debate about agricultural water use and endangered species management, while its population dwindles almost to nothing.
As a consequence, information about longfin smelt tends to come from work done in the Bay Delta. From those fish, scientists have learned the species has a complex natural history. Like salmon, the smelt are anadromous, spending part of their lives in freshwater and part of it in salt. (Except, of course, for the ones that don’t, like a landlocked population in Lake Washington.)
Females lay their eggs in gravel beds between January and April; the young hatch from February until May; and migrate out to the estuary between June and October. Some might continue out to the ocean, while others stay in the estuary to mature into adults.
“[Longfin smelt] may be minor players in terms of population size,” she says. “But it’s also important to remember they are spawning in November when hardly anything else is, so they could be a key component of food resources available for salmon.” Rachel Arnold, Salish Sea Research Center
Unfortunately, beyond those broad brushstrokes, the finer details of longfin life remain mysterious. “There’s certainly been a lot of interest in forage fishes recently,” says Rachel Arnold, the associate director of the Salish Sea Research Center. “But when it comes to the longfin smelt, we just don’t have much of a sense about even the basic biology of this population.”
Arnold is Mallon’s supervisor at the Northwest Indian College. She started working on longfin smelt in the Nooksack soon after she was hired at the college in 2015. She was looking for projects that would satisfy her remit to focus on issues beneficial to northwestern tribes, and learned about the smelt when, driving around Bellingham in November (“this terrible time of year”), she saw cars and trucks lining the roadside near the Marine Drive bridge. She went down and talked to some folks, and learned they were after longfin smelt.
Arnold decided to focus on them after talking to tribal elders and hearing the population might be declining. In the past, the hooligan run lasted for weeks rather than days, and the fish were far more abundant. “You would hear these stories of guys in the 1960s hauling up a wheelbarrow full of fish after 15 or 20 minutes,” Arnold says. “That doesn’t really happen anymore.”
One of Arnold’s first questions was whether there are two populations of longfin smelt on the Nooksack, divided into even- and odd-year runs. (Longfin smelt are thought to spawn after two years.) The traditional ecological knowledge from the Lummi suggested that even-year runs tended to be more robust than odd-year runs. But, when Arnold analyzed genetic markers from the two runs, she found the two were similar; enough fish were breeding at the age of one or three to blur whatever distinctions there might be between even and odd years. “It’s basically a single population,” she says. “So something else is likely driving the differences.”
Now, she is interested in how far up the Nooksack the smelt might be going to spawn. Lummi tribal members have told her they can recall catching hooligans several miles up the Nooksack, as far as Ferndale, although now it is hard to find hard evidence of the little fish swimming such distances anymore.
Arnold plans to use environmental DNA, or eDNA — a technique that entails collecting DNA from the broader environment to detect evidence of smelt presence. “We’ll be able to know a few have at least made it up that far even if we can’t see them,” she says.
That the hooligans no longer migrate so far upriver is consistent with findings from California, which show smelt spawning closer to the river mouths and estuaries rather than in freshwater — a consequence of agricultural irrigation demands. For Arnold, such spatial contractions also point to the ecological importance of the longfin smelt. “They may be minor players in terms of population size,” she says. “But it’s also important to remember they are spawning in November when hardly anything else is, so they could be a key component of food resources available for salmon.”
Even as these advances push the light a little further against darkness, though, so much about the smelt remains unknown. A short time ago, someone from a federal agency contacted Arnold wanting to know why the Nooksack longfin smelt population was small. Also, why are there smelt in the Nooksack River but not the Skagit, which is only a short distance away? “The only answer I could give them,” Arnold says, “is that no one knows the answers yet.”
Not Especially Delinquent
After 20 or so fruitless minutes next to the bridge, Mallon decides to try her luck elsewhere. She had come across a spot a couple of days before next to a small park on Silver Creek, a tributary of the Nooksack only a few minutes away. “Sometimes we do really well and I catch enough hoolies in, like, 15 or 20 minutes,” she says as she shleps the net and bucket back to her truck. “And sometimes I don’t.”
We drive a couple of blocks to a small city park and push through the shrubs down to the riverbank. The Silver Creek spot has many of the same traits as the Marine Drive spot — the rushing, brown river, the rain and general gloominess — but the bank here is more wooded and grassier.
Mallon arranges herself next to a tall alder, dipping the net into the river. When she hefts it after a spell, it is empty. She dips once more, waits a couple of minutes, hefts the dripping net. Empty again. She grimaces. “It would be nice if you could at least see some hoolies,” she says.
She means hoolies in the wild; I have seen some already back in the lab at the Salish Sea Research Center, where Mallon and Thayne Yazzie, the Center’s Outreach Coordinator, had shown me a large tank full of them. Mallon and Jeff Solomon, a technician with Lummi Natural Resources, had caught them over the past few days. Now the fish were waiting, as Mallon euphemistically put it, “to contribute to science” in the form of offering up their genetic material for the eDNA study, among others.
The tank was next to a window and backlit. A few dozen smelt flitted over a scatter of gravel on the bottom. Most were four or five inches long, and some of those had a light golden sheen to the scales on their sides. These were the males, which can also be distinguished by their larger anal fin. Females are a little smaller and more silvery, and at this time of year have a rounder aspect, being full of eggs.
“They’re really pretty when you get to see them close,” Yazzie had said. He was planning to set up a webcam to broadcast the admittedly subdued antics of the fish before they made their — ahem — final contributions.
I leaned in close to peer at the individual fish as they drifted around the tank, flicking their diaphanous fins. To me, they did not look especially delinquent, but their nickname, the hooligan, should come with a proviso to be watchful for chains of association; call a small fish a hooligan in other parts of the Salish Sea, Arnold says, and people (especially Canadians) will think you are talking about the eulachon, another, far more numerous small fish. Eulachon, in turn, are also called candlefish since they are so oily that people can light them on fire like a candle.
But so, too, are sand lance, another common forage fish in the Salish Sea (although I have never known anyone to light a sand lance on fire). Last but not least, silver smelt might be any kind of smelt — surf smelt, longfin smelt, or, again, eulachon (which are a kind of smelt). “Forage fish are like that,” Arnold says. “Everyone knows them differently. Common names can be quite an issue.”
Whatever they are called, the hooligans of the Nooksack River have played an important subsistence role for generations of Lummi people — both long ago and today.
“Hoolies can be fried whole, or gutted and deboned like sardines,” says Jeff Solomon, with Lummi Natural Resources. “Sometimes people also use them as fertilizer.” He first went fishing for them with his grandfather when he was a teenager. After a stint in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Solomon returned to the Lummi reservation, where he enrolled at the Northwest Indian College and started an internship with Lummi Natural Resources.
It was in the former capacity that Solomon met Arnold; he currently acts as the liaison between LNR and the Salish Sea Research Center. Like others, he has watched hoolie numbers with concern. Their decline is likely due to several factors, including habitat loss and fishing pressure. “There’s not much regulation at all up here,” he says. “The general, unwritten rule is that non-native fishers are allowed 10 pounds of fish per night, but no one’s really out checking.”
One of the reasons smelt on the Nooksack River are not intensively managed is the scale, or its lack, says Phill Dionne, a forage fish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The run is short, it’s in a small region, and the harvest isn’t that big.”
While state regulations limit riverbank access and constrain fishers to daylight, there is no broader state effort to monitor the population. It is a question of priority. “Population trends are only available for forage fish stocks that are either of the greatest conservation concern or are commercially important,” Dionne says. “Even though they’re so vital to the ecosystem, forage fish don’t often get the resources or attention that some other species like salmon do.”
In the meantime, Solomon hopes to ensure the hooligans will persist. He tries to go out a couple of times during the run, fishing both for Arnold’s project and for himself. He has a spot he likes that sometimes he goes to after work in waders, carrying his dip net. “It’s nice,” he says, “to sit out there in the dark and look at the lights of the city of Bellingham across the bay.”
Hooligan Phone Tree
Fifteen minutes later with nary a smelt, Mallon asks if I’d like to try dipping for the hooligans myself. “So you can at least feel what it’s like,” she says.
“Sure,” I say. I take the net — it is surprisingly heavy and awkward — and drop it into the river as I have seen Mallon do. The current immediately grabs the net and tugs at it, drags it around and around. Finally, I wrest it into position, the opening facing downriver. Mallon tells me Solomon showed her how to listen for the smelt by putting her ear against the pole. “You can hear the ping of fish hitting the net,” she says. But when I do this, I hear only the white noise of the river as it races fishlessly past.
Even so, there is something somnambulantly pleasing to the act of dipping. The net goes in and the net comes out. Each time it is empty. What if it weren’t? The hope behind that question is the allure of fishing, and, before I know it, the light has faded and it is hard to see. Mallon tells me we should stop. “We’re not supposed to be out here after dark,” she says. “State regulations.”
We drive back to college campus so she can drop off the dip net and empty bucket. “I’ll go back out tomorrow afternoon,” she says. “I’ll probably catch a bundle.”
By the time I leave the college by way of the Marine Drive bridge a few minutes later, the roadside is lined with nearly a dozen cars and pickups — benefactors of what Mallon calls “the hooligan phone tree.”
I pull over and get out and walk towards the bridge. The sky is so dark that I can no longer see the river. The banks are similarly night-cloaked, but, if I squint into the gloom, I can just make out the faint light of headlamps scattered up and down among the shadows of trees as people dip for hooligans in the rain, all of them hoping for the best.
You can view the original article at the following link: https://www.eopugetsound.org/magazine/IS/longfin-smelt
Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of “Penguins in the Desert” and co-author of “Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish.” His most recent book is “After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens,” published earlier this year by University of Washington Press. He holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Washington.