House passes bill requiring a license to ‘smelt dip’

Jan 25, 2024, 10:49 AM | Updated: Jan 26, 2024, 4:43 am

smelt dip...

A fish farmer in training, pours smelt from a fish trap. (Photo: Philipp Schulze/Getty Images)

(Photo: Philipp Schulze/Getty Images)

The state House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that affects a rite of passage practiced by generations of Washingtonians with a license — smelt dipping.

Smelt, also called a candlefish, is a small and silvery fish about the size of an oversized anchovy, four to eight inches in length and known for its oily texture. The smelt that swims through Washington rivers is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act of 2010.

Smelt dipping requires a baited dip net at the end of a very long pole, with smelt fishermen standing on the shoreline, or in a boat, dropping the net into the water.

The legal limit in Washington is 10 pounds of smelt per person.

More on state fishing: State record set with 21-pound mahi-mahi fish caught off Westport

Its fisheries do not occur every year because the run is not always able to support recreational fishing, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) stated. This is the case even though hundreds of millions of smelt can return to the Columbia River and then to tributaries such as the Cowlitz and Lewis Rivers.

Along a party-line vote, the House Democrats were able to pass House Bill 1225 Wednesday, requiring a $12 fishing license to catch smelt during what is sometimes the shortest fishing season in the state. (A PDF of the original bill can be viewed here.)

“Last year’s season lasted five hours, and we are going to make people get a license for a season that lasts five hours? It doesn’t make sense,” Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, argued against the bill on the House floor.

The unpredictability of smelt dipping season

Several lawmakers pointed out the immediacy of the fishery and its unpredictability. Smelt dippers are sometimes given little notice by the WDFW when the season starts, typically in February.

Other Republicans, like Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, argued smelt dipping is a cultural family practice that has lasted for decades.

“You’ll see grandmothers with their grandchildren, out with their nets to dip smelt. It is something that people who live in those areas around those river systems love to do,” Walsh said. “I’m concerned if we require a permit for dipping smelt, those people may dip you and me.”

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The bill also requires a fishing license for crawfish and carp, which is largely considered a pest and is not considered a game fish.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Redmond, said the WDFW needs the licensing requirement to go after illegal fishermen.

“The courts tell us that absent a license that regulates how you are supposed to deal with these fish, no civil infraction can be upheld in court,” Springer said.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here

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House passes bill requiring a license to ‘smelt dip’