So Few Smelt

Apr 11, 2011

Migrating fish just a half-foot long once flooded coastal rivers of the northeast every spring. In recent decades, rainbow smelt populations have been declining every year, and are fading to a dim memory in many places. But not in Down East Maine. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Murray Carpenter reports that elsewhere in the region, scientists are trying to bring them back.   

Like salmon, rainbow smelt spawn in fresh water and mature in the ocean. And though they may be small and uncharismatic, Steve Gephard says their historic ecological role was enormous. 

“This was a very important and abundant species, they came in by the millions. We know that they are an important forage fish for things like Atlantic salmon, and striped bass and other species.” 

Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, says in order to bring back Atlantic salmon, prey fish like smelt are key.  

Not only are smelt ecologically valuable, they’re culturally important. Commercial smelt fishing was once big business, and some northeasterners remember eating smelt, rolled in corn meal and fried in pork fat until the tender fish flaked from the bones. Now they’ve been all but forgotten in much of the region. 

One place smelt still thrive is below these falls on the shore of the Pleasant River in Eastern Maine. Dwayne Shaw, the executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, says commercial fishermen have been hauling in smelt here for centuries, and before that Native Americans harvested them.  

“As far back as 1769 we have records for all kinds of commercial fishing, but smelt was always one of the big ones.” 

And it still is, at least here. Just downriver, Sewell Look is sitting by a wood stove in his tarpaper shack, where records of the old catches are scrawled on the wooden walls.  

“I catch quite a few. Some nights 200 pounds. But if the market ain’t good I can set back on my nets and catch 27-30 pounds. According to how the market is.” 

Look sells his fish to stores, and to elderly customers who grew up eating smelt. Look, who’s 73, has been catching smelt here since he was 13. Back then, he packed smelt in wooden boxes for older fishermen, and put them on a train to Boston. Those fishermen are gone now, even the train tracks are gone, but the smelt remain.  

“And we still, right now, far as I know, we’ve got as good a run a smelts as there is on the East Coast, in this one river.” 

But further south, in waters below Cape Cod, the smelt have plummeted. The fish have all but disappeared from the mouths of the Hudson and the Connecticut rivers. On the Connecticut shore, Steve Gephard says the situation is bleak. 

“It looks like the species is pretty much gone. We do pick up individuals in Long Island Sound, but you know, they have to spawn somewhere, and we can’t find those spawning runs.” 

Gephard says the decline began in the 1970s at the southern edge of smelt’s range in New Jersey, and has spread north. Nobody knows exactly why. It might be water pollution, or an abundance of algae on the rocky bottom where smelt spawn. And Gephard is concerned about the role temperatures might be playing.  

“If in fact, Connecticut is now unsuitable for smelt because of climate change, there may not be anything we can do, but at this point we are not ready to concede that point.”  

Not having any smelt left to study, Gephard is closely following research to the north. Massachusetts biologists have spawned smelt in hatcheries and stocked the Crane River, north of Boston. And in New Hampshire and Maine, biologists are tracking smelt movements in the coastal waters.  

As biologists seek the hidden roots of smelt’s mysterious decline, some threats are more apparent. 

Back by the falls on the Pleasant River, there’s a whiff of oil fumes in the evening breeze. A recent spill sent diesel fuel down the river and into the smelt spawning beds, closing the commercial fishing season early this year. Sewell Look pulled his nets up through an oily sheen.  

“How much of that oil on all of our smelts that was in here spawning, how is that going to affect our next year’s catch, the year after next catch, you know, we’ve got to worry about the future, not just today.” 

The spill is a reminder that even in their stronghold in this undeveloped corner of the Atlantic coast, rainbow smelt are swimming into a tenuous future.