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No Rainbow Smelts?

by Robert Spencer

All of you KLAers are owed an apology. The romantic historical reference to native Abenaki people fishing by torch light for smelts, which I cast in my piece in February, was erroneous. Surely the aboriginal residents of Waterford fished in that manner, but it wasn’t for smelts.

Rainbow smelts (Osmerus mordax) are an anadromous species, meaning they migrate from the sea to fresh water to spawn. Their range originally was within fifty miles of the Maine coast, where it was possible to swim upstream each year to lay eggs in brackish water. According to Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife (MDIFW) undocumented introductions of smelts were made during the 1800’s in order to provide residents a game fish for early spring. Adapting to our area’s cold, clean streams and lakes, the population rapidly expanded, providing each smelter’s family a year’s supply in just a day’s dipping.

By 2004 smelt numbers had dropped precipitously to the point that NOAA listed the fish as a “Species of Concern.” Not only had the small fish been taken by humans in large amounts from Keoka and other area lakes, they also were the prime forage for land-locked salmon, brook and lake trout, bass, and white perch. The situation was much the same in Lake Michigan, where smelt was stocked as both a game and forage fish. In an article appearing in the Detroit Free Press in April 2015, Purdue researcher Zachary Feiner is quoted: “Smelt were invasives (non-natives). Now they’re supporting a multi-million-dollar fishery. These are the forage fish at the base of the food chain.”

In Maine MDIFW, biologists have made many introductions to both create and improve fishing opportunities. Stocking has been used to provide fishing for recreational purposes as well as to provide food for other stocked species such as trout and salmon. These efforts, both as egg and live transfers from native locations and fish nurseries, met with mixed results. During the late twentieth century a decision was made by the State to close smelt fisheries to spring dipping in lakes where it was deemed more important to use remaining populations to support increasing numbers of larger fish who are dependent on them.

Why did the smelt populations drop so quickly and resist restoration efforts? According to the 2002 Maine Smelt Management Plan the answer is difficult to make. There are three potential causes, all of which are concerns of KLA. First is eutrophication, which is excessive richness of nutrients in the body of water, frequently due to runoff, which causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen. This may include sand from road maintenance. Second is introduction of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer coming from lakeside lots. Third is the alteration of tributaries arising from development and poor maintenance of drainage structures.

I checked Maine’s Keoka “Stocking Reports” for 2019 and 2020 and found no mention of smelts, only brookies and salmon. Apparently, the lowly smelt is being left to its own defenses against elimination. Again, I quote Mr. Feiner: “Smelt can be a canary in a coal mine in a few ways. They can tell you what is going on in the environment.”

For more information click on this link to a very informative article: Rainbow Smelt: An Imperiled Fish in a Changing World.

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