About the Species
Eulachon are an anadromous (moving between freshwater and saltwater) smelt in the family Osmeridae. The binomial species name is derived from Greek roots; thaleia meaning rich, ichthys meaning fish, and pacificus meaning of the Pacific.
Eulachon have many other names—smelt, hooligan, oolichan, and fathom fish. First Nations people called eulachon "salvation" fish because the return of spawning runs to coastal rivers meant the difference between life and starvation after a hard winter. Native people continue to fish for eulachon by traditional methods for use as an important subsistence food and medicine.
NOAA Fisheries is committed to conserving and protecting eulachon. Our scientists and partners use a variety of innovative techniques to study, learn more about, and protect this species.
The 2010 status review concluded that the southern DPS of eulachon experienced an abrupt decline in abundance throughout its range, beginning in the mid-1990s. Although eulachon abundance in monitored rivers improved in the 2013–2015 return years, sharp declines in eulachon abundance occurred in monitored rivers in 2016–2018. Recent improvements in ocean conditions in the northern California Current, beginning in 2020, suggest that eulachon may rebound in numbers in the near future. The 2016 ESA five-year review concluded that the DPS’s threatened designation remained appropriate. An updated five-year review is in preparation.
Eulachon are an anadromous smelt in the family Osmeridae and are distinguished from other osmerids by having 4–6 gill rakers on the upper half of the gill arch (others have 8–14 gill rakers) and distinct concentric striations on the operculum and suboperculum (gill plate). Eulachon have a prominent adipose fin, and exhibit strong countershading on the body; blue above and silver below. Eulachon mature when they are about 160–250 mm (6–10 inches) in length. Small, pointed teeth occur on both jaws and tongue, but these are usually resorbed in spawning specimens.
Behavior and Diet
Juvenile eulachon from 30–100 mm in length disperse within the first year of life to open, marine waters on the continental shelf and reside near the bottom at depths of 50–200 m. Eulachon do not undergo diel vertical migrations from their preferred depths. Postlarval and juvenile (20–157 mm) eulachon consume various planktonic crustaceans, particularly adult copepods. Adult eulachon consume euphausiids, cumaceans, and copepods, with euphausiids (aka, “krill”) being the primary prey.
Where They Live
Eulachon are anadromous; however, they spend about 95 percent of their life at sea, returning to spawn in the lower portions of coastal rivers that are fed by snow-melt or glacial run off. Eulachon range from northern California to the southeastern Bering Sea coast of Alaska. The ESA-listed Southern DPS of Eulachon occurs in the California Current and spawns in rivers ranging from the Mad River in California to the Skeena River in northern British Columbia, Canada.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Adult eulachon typically spawn at age 2–5. Many rivers within the range of eulachon have consistent yearly spawning runs; however, eulachon may appear in other rivers only on an irregular or occasional basis. The spawning migration typically begins when river temperatures are between 0 and 10⁰ C, which usually occurs between December and June. Most eulachon are semelparous (i.e., they die after spawning) and females release from 7,000–60,000 eggs, which are approximately 1 mm in diameter. Milt and eggs are released over sand or coarse gravel. Eggs become adhesive after fertilization and hatch in 3–8 weeks depending on temperature. River flow carries newly hatched larvae (4–8 mm in length) down-river to estuaries, and juveniles disperse onto the marine continental shelf within the first year of life.
The 2010 status review categorized climate change impacts on ocean conditions as the most serious threat to the persistence of eulachon throughout the Southern DPS. Climate change impacts on freshwater habitat and eulachon bycatch in offshore shrimp fisheries were also ranked within the top four threats in all areas of the DPS. Dams and water diversions in the Klamath and Columbia rivers, and predation in the Fraser River and British Columbia coastal rivers filled out the last of the top four identified threats.
In the Spotlight
Recovery Planning and Implementation
October 20, 2016: Draft Eulachon Recovery Plan (PDF, 120 pages)
June 21, 2013: Recovery Plan Outline for the Southern DPS of Eulachon (PDF, 27 pages)
NOAA Fisheries listed the southern DPS of Pacific eulachon as threatened under the ESA in 2010 and designated critical habitat in 2011.
Though the designation applies only to eulachon, this critical habitat will provide benefits to other listed species, including salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and green sturgeon.
The designation covers 16 creeks and rivers within Washington, Oregon, and California. The total number of stream miles included in this designation is 335 (539 km). The Federal Register notice has information describing specific creeks and rivers (including latitude and longitude identifiers) and maps of the areas designated.
The ESA gives the Secretary of Commerce discretion to exclude areas from designation if he determines that the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of designation. We have excluded areas that overlap with Native American tribal lands. These areas are excluded because of the unique trust relationship between tribes and the federal government, the federal emphasis on respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance, and the importance of tribal participation in numerous activities aimed at conserving eulachon. These exclusions consist of portions of the Klamath, Quinault, and Elwha Rivers in California and Washington.
- News release: NOAA Lists Pacific Smelt as “Threatened”
- Designation of Critical Habitat for Southern DPS of Eulachon
- References for eulachon critical habitat (PDF, 12 pages)
The analysis supporting the final rule is explained in detail in several accompanying documents. They include:
- A biological report describing how we mapped fish distribution, determined which areas meet the definition of critical habitat, and rated the conservation value of different areas: Critical Habitat for the Southern Distinct Population Segment of Eulachon: Biological Report.
- An economics report describing how we estimated the economic impact of this proposal on different areas: Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat for the Southern Distinct Population Segment of Eulachon (PDF, 103 pages).
- A report describing how we weighed the benefits of exclusion versus the benefits of designation, to recommend the exclusion of particular areas: Designation of Critical Habitat for the Southern Distinct Population Segment of Eulachon: Section 4(b)(2) Report (PDF, 42 pages).
- Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
- Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife—Eulachon publications and reports
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife
- Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada—Studies of Eulachon Smelt in OR and WA, 2014 (PDF, 168 pages)
- September 2014 Eulachon Newsletter (PDF, 2 pages)
- December 2014 Eulachon Newsletter (PDF, 3 pages)
- December 2015 Eulachon Newsletter (PDF, 3 pages)
- ESA Listing Status Threatened for Southern Distinct Population Segment of Eulachon
- Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; Final Rule to Revise the Code of Federal Regulations for Species under the Jurisdiction of NOAA Fisheries
- 2016 5-Year Review Summary and Evaluation
- 2016 Status Review Update (PDF, 121 pages)
- 2010 Eulachon Status Review
- 2008 Eulachon Status Review (PDF, 229 pages)
Key Actions and Documents
NOAA Fisheries recommends the Southern DPS of eulachon remain classified as threatened.
This Recovery Plan links threats and management actions to an active research program to fill data…
Data & Maps
Tracks the implementation of recovery actions from Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery plans.