The Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus mordax) is a small, sea-run fish that lives in estuaries and saltwater bays and spawns in freshwater streams in spring. Once common from Delaware to Canada, their populations have declined dramatically in recent decades. In 2004, Rainbow Smelt was listed as a federal species of concern.
The reasons for these declines are not well understood, but dams, pollution, increasing water temperatures, and overfishing are among possible causes. Similar declines have occurred in parts of Maine, which has led the Maine Department of Marine Resources to ban smelt fishing this spring in the lower half of the state, from Stonington to Kittery. Runs of Rainbow Smelt in the closure area have declined by 50 percent in the last few decades, according to state studies.
There is one place in Maine, however, that supports a healthy enough spawning population that smelt are still harvested commercially – the Pleasant River in Columbia Falls.
“The Pleasant River smelt fishery is the last remaining and longest-running commercial smelt fishery on the Atlantic Coast,” said Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF).
The DSF is a partner in the Downeast Fisheries Partnership, an effort led by Manomet, the DSF and the Penobscot East Resource Center aimed at tackling the complex problem of restoring the fisheries of Downeast Maine.
“Eastern Maine is the only place you can harvest smelt,” said Manomet’s Anne Hayden, coordinator of the Downeast Fisheries Partnership. “Smelt play an integral role in freshwater and marine ecosystems and are an important forage base for some of the larger game fish such as Atlantic salmon, bluefish and striped bass as well as other species including cod, harbor seals, herons, cormorants and osprey.”
The DSF played a major role in removing a hydro-dam from the Pleasant River, which restored important habitat for salmon, smelt and other sea-run fish.
“We see this as a real success story, where an anadromous fish population was able to sustain a commercial level of harvest in the face of declines in other locations, in part due to the proactive work we are doing and the quality of the habitat,” Shaw said.
The DSF participates in the smelt harvest each year and then holds an annual smelt fry in April. This year’s harvest was a bit unusual, as the river was still frozen and the fish were harvested through the ice rather than from a boat.
“When we harvest the smelt, we take scientific data from them to confirm that the population is healthy and that there is a broad age class and a good distribution of males and females,” Shaw said.
The DSF has also done an inventory of over 100 streams in Washington County to document habitat, working with anglers to collect data on populations of smelt and other species.
“The annual smelt fry in Columbia Falls is one of the last of its kind,” Shaw said. “It’s a celebration of local engagement, management, and stewardship. The smelt harvest is an important part of our community heritage – with only a handful of families on the Pleasant River who have been continuing to net smelt since before the American Revolution.”
Over 500 people gather to participate in the annual community smelt fry, which offers tours of a restored fish camp and the DSF’s Wild Salmon Resource Center and Pleasant River Hatchery facilities, live music, educational displays, and plenty of battered and fried smelt and other regional foods.
This year’s smelt fry will take place on Friday, April 18th on Main Street in Columbia Falls, Maine. All are welcome and encouraged to attend. Visit the DSF’s website for more information.
To learn more about the Downeast Fisheries Partnership, visit http://downeastfisheries.org/.
– Haley Jordan
Smelt fry photo courtesy of Downeast Salmon Federation.