State Proposes Major Changes to Smelt Management
By Jim Pellerin

Staff biologists at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) have been reviewing and discussing a series of changes to inland smelt management to provide better conservation of this valuable natural resource. The proposals include a variety of regulation modifications, an inventory (population) review, as well as, a few experimental and educational components. For those unfamiliar with smelt, many would be surprised that such a small fish could possibly generate so much discussion and controversy. Consequently, it is important to have a basic understanding of the species, why they are important, and to whom before discussing the proposals.

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What are smelt?

Rainbow smelt are a small, slender fish that generally do not exceed 6-7 inches in freshwater habitats. Their backs are a dark-green to olive color, while their bright silvery sides shimmer with iridescent hues of purple, blue, green, and pink. Hence, the common name "rainbow" smelt. Smelt are an anadromous fish species that is, they grow to maturity in the ocean and return to freshwater streams to spawn. The species is distributed along the Atlantic seaboard from Labrador to New Jersey. Smelt have also established landlocked populations, which spend their entire lives in freshwater systems. The distribution of landlocked populations, originally restricted to coastal drainages, has expanded throughout the northeastern United States, eastern Canada, and as far inland as the Great Lakes drainage via human introductions. The "landlocked" rainbow smelt is this focus for the remainder of this article.

Smelt are currently widely distributed throughout Maine with populations known to occur in 558 lakes; however, the original distribution of the species may have extended no more than 50 or 60 miles from the coast. Unauthorized and unrecorded introductions of smelts have been frequent in Maine, beginning at least as early as the 1870's, making a determination of their original distribution impossible. In addition, MDIFW biologists have made many introductions throughout the state to create or improve fishing opportunities for Maine's anglers.

Freshwater smelt populations typically inhabit large, cool, stratified lakes where they may become extremely abundant. Maine fishery biologists have also documented viable smelt populations in less suitable environments. For example, smelt populations have been found in some Maine ponds less than 10 acres in size and in waters with maximum depths as shallow as 14 feet.

Mature smelt, 2-3 years of age or older, generally ascend streams to spawn around the time of ice-out (March-May). However, it is well documented that some populations spawn successfully within lakes and ponds that lack suitable spawning tributaries by utilizing shoreline areas or offshore shoals. There is also evidence suggesting smelt may choose to spawn within the lake environment as a result of inclement weather or unfavorable stream flows. The spawning event ranges from 2 days to 3 weeks, but peak activity is usually less than one week in duration. Spawning activity usually occurs at night with most of the spawning individuals dropping back into the lake during daylight hours. Larger individuals of the population spawn first, followed by smaller individuals in the latter part of the run. Spawning fish travel a short distance upstream and position themselves within the current over shallow riffle areas. Two or more adult males will crowd around a female, and as more and more of these small breeding groups develop, females will begin extruding small clusters of eggs with males excreting milt simultaneously. The eggs are adhesive and quickly attach to whatever they contact (i.e. rocks, vegetation). The outer coating of the egg peels off to form a stalk, which allows the egg to sway within the current.

Egg development proceeds rapidly, and hatching generally occurs within 2-4 weeks, depending upon water temperatures. After hatching, the transparent larvae, approximately a quarter of an inch in length, drift downstream into the lake. Initially, smelt movement is largely restricted to drifting with existing currents, which temporarily makes them a component of the lake's plankton community. Growth is fairly rapid, and they can obtain lengths of up to 2 inches by late summer of their first year. Smelt vary in size from water to water, but most mature individuals from landlocked populations range from 3-6 inches in length. Smelt from large lake systems (i.e. Great Lakes) can resemble their sea-run relatives in size as smelt up to 14 inches and longer have occasionally been recorded throughout their landlocked range. Smelt are a carnivorous species, they feed on a variety of food items and their feeding habits are largely size dependent. Juvenile smelt feed predominantly on a variety of plankton and smaller aquatic invertebrates, while larger individuals target bigger forms of zooplankton, aquatic invertebrates, and even small fish. Smelt are also cannibalistic and will commonly feed on smaller individuals within the population.

Smelt are considered to be a schooling species that exhibits nocturnal behavioral patterns. In the summer, they generally tend to congregate in large, tight schools near the bottom of the lake throughout daylight. However, as night approaches they swim towards the thermocline to feed, and individual smelt fan out to form large, loose schools. The thermocline is a band of water that exhibits rapid temperature change and generally occurs at a depth of around 15-30 feet. Smelt movements and daily patterns appear to be more variable during the fall and winter seasons, when they are known to utilize the entire lake environment.

Why are smelt important and to whom?

Despite their relatively small size and low profile, rainbow smelt are of great importance to anglers and fisheries statewide. They are the only inland fish species to provide such a variety of uses and benefits including: recreational sport fishing opportunities, a commercial bait fishery, a favored bait for anglers targeting other sportfish, a popular food fish, and a primary forage fish. These same attributes contribute to the complexity of smelt management, because demands from various user groups are often in conflict with one another, particularly when resources are limited. For example, protecting smelt populations for one type of use (i.e. forage) typically reduces or eliminates other use opportunities. Unpredictable and extreme fluctuations in smelt abundance, combined with a lack of knowledge and control over the factors influencing abundance further complicates management of the species. All of these dynamics can be the source of controversy among the various user groups and often creates dissatisfaction towards the resource management agency.

Smelt are extremely valuable as a forage fish, and are a principal food source for a variety of Maine's sport fish. They are consumed by every coldwater game fish in the State, but are particularly important as forage for landlocked salmon and lake trout. It is well documented that the overall health and quality of Maine's landlocked salmon fisheries are largely dependent on smelt population abundance. Many warmwater sport fish (i.e. smallmouth bass, white perch) also prey heavily on smelt. Multiple species of coldwater and/or warmwater smelt predators often exist within individual lakes, which equates to a large predator base for the smelt population. The use of smelt as forage for gamefish, particularly landlocked salmon, is the Department's highest management priority for smelt. This critical connection between smelt and other important fishery resources has and will likely continue to reduce opportunities for other user groups through regulations to protect smelt for forage.

Many Maine anglers hold smelt in high esteem as a food fish and some catch smelt for their personal bait needs. Recreational hook-and-line fisheries in the summer and winter, and dip-net fisheries in the spring provide anglers with a variety of opportunities for harvesting smelts recreationally. General laws governing fishing in Maine entitle licensed anglers to take up to 2 quarts per day from waters open to smelting. Anglers have been afforded greater use-opportunity as the species became more widely distributed around the State; however, the number of regulations and restrictions has increased over the years, particularly the number of streams closed to smelt dipping. The two primary reasons for these stream closures are: (1) closures by fishery managers to protect a valuable forage fish in important trout and salmon waters; and (2) closures as a result of public concern about over-fishing, vandalism, trespass, and littering. The MDIFW considers recreational fishing opportunities as a higher priority for this species than commercial use of the resource. The basis for this priority is that the recreational use of the resource is a more traditional use and recreational harvesting typically poses less of a threat than commercial activities.

Given their importance as a forage fish, its no wonder that smelts are also a preferred bait for anglers targeting coldwater fish. This bait demand has resulted in a valuable and lucrative commercial smelt fishery. Conservative projections in 1991 estimated sales of 6.9 million smelt worth $1.94 million. Smelt harvested by commercial smelt dealers, are commonly sold through both wholesale and retail markets. A Maine smelt wholesaler's license allows holders to harvest up to 8 quarts of smelts daily from select waters, or 2 quarts from all other waters open to the harvesting of smelt; to possess more than this amount as long as they were legally taken; and to sell smelts. Licensed smelt dealers may take smelts by hook-and-line, handheld dipnet, and dropnet according to the laws, rules, and policies of the Department. Harvest by licensed smelt dealers is restricted to waters designated by the Department, which are selected annually in accordance with the overall harvest objectives for the species.

What changes are being proposed and why?

In 2001, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries Wildlife (MDIFW) and various public-working groups developed a 15-year species plan for smelt management. The goals, objectives, and priorities of the species plan are identified below.

One goal was to maintain existing smelt habitat quantity and quality; and increase smelt abundance and availability where it was possible to moderate current demands as a forage fish, as a sportfish, and as a commercial baitfish.

We also wanted to, on a statewide basis, maintain smelt populations at or above current abundance levels in 558 Maine lakes, totaling 749,114 acres. We want to see if there are opportunities to increase the distribution of smelts into new waters by 2016, as long as it will not negatively impact other coldwater species, and to balance the demand for sport-fishing and commercial interests.

As for the taking of smelts, the following objectives are prioritized as follows: First, Maximize the supply of smelt available as forage for salmonids, particularly landlocked salmon and lake trout, within the context of the management objectives for those species. Second, maintain and/or increase recreational hook-and-line and dip-netting opportunities; and third, maintain and/or improve the supply of smelts available for the commercial baitfish industry.

The development of the species plan along with its stated goals, objectives, priorities, and strategies was an important step towards the management and conservation of the State's smelt populations. However, five out of the seven fishery management regions in the State reported existing smelt resources are incapable of satisfying existing demands for forage, hook-and-line angling, dipping, and commercial use.

The smelt species plan also indicates there is not enough protection built into our current smelt management scheme, particularly in regards to spring dipping activities and commercial smelt management. Spring dip-netting is a traditional smelt fishing method, but smelt populations are particularly vulnerable to over-harvest due to their spawning behavior. Dipping activities can also result in future year class failures due to excessive harvest prior to spawning, interference and/or blockage of smelt spawning activities, and increased egg mortalities through siltation and/or direct physical damage of the eggs. Commercial dealers are also capable of over-fishing smelt populations, particularly where demand is high and resources are limited. In addition, commercial smelt fisheries in the State have been a continual source of controversy over the years.

As a result, MDIFW has held a variety of staff meetings to explore opportunities for enhancing conservation measures for the State's smelt populations. These discussions covered a wide range of possibilities for recreational and commercial users including: smaller bag limits, no walking in streams while dipping, rotation of waters open to commercial dealers, limited entry systems for commercial dealers, shorter season lengths, limited number of nets/water, commercial waters with no bag limits, and others. Many of the proposals discussed were deemed unsuitable for a variety of reasons; however, we were able to come up with an assortment of proposed changes that builds additional conservation measures into the way we currently manage our smelt populations.

Following is a list of proposals being considered for advancement along with a brief explanation of each.

* Maintain existing system of listing waters open to commercial smelting. MDIFW distributes a list of waters open to commercial smelt dealers, which is reviewed and updated annually. This list allows the Department to efficiently respond to and manage for rapid changes in our smelt populations by removing and/or adding waters as needed.

* Conduct a comprehensive review of statewide smelt waters. The Department's fisheries staff recently completed a comprehensive review of all known smelt waters to insure consistency with the management priorities of the species plan. The assessment also allowed the Department to identify and consider potential new opportunities for both recreational and commercial user groups. As a result, eleven waters will be removed from the 2005 commercial smelt list. On the other hand, sixty smelt waters were

* Hook & line anglers/dip-netters (without a commercial license) will only be allowed to keep 5-dozen smelt alive; the balance of their limit would have to be killed. The illegal sale of live smelt for bait by recreational anglers has been a problem in some areas of the State, and is a source of controversy among recreational and commercial users. This rule change discourages this practice by lowering the economic incentive, and it allows the Warden Service to more effectively enforce existing laws pertaining to the illegal sale of smelts. In addition, recreational anglers are still permitted a reasonable number of live smelt for their personal bait needs.

* Establish a 24-inch diameter maximum hoop size for dip-nets. Larger nets are more effective at capturing smelt, and in many instances a few people with hefty nets stationed at the mouth of a small stream can effectively block and control the entire smelt run. This change provides additional opportunity for escapement and better distributes the catch among anglers, particularly on small to medium sized streams.

* Establish a statewide midnight closure for dip-netting. This proposal has three benefits: (1) it is expected to significantly protect the resource by giving smelt an opportunity to spawn a portion of each night without interference or harvest; (2) it should reduce some of the social issues associated with dipping, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. Aggregations of smelt-dippers crowding into small areas along streams are highly visible to the public and landowners. Trespass, littering, general land abuse, and disturbing noises or behaviors are often associated with dipping activities; and (3) it also provides some enforcement benefits for the Warden Service.

* Smelt dealers only allowed to dip-net 2 quarts of smelt during the spring spawning season. Currently, on commercial waters dealers are allowed to harvest 8 quarts of smelt all winter long with the use of dropnets, and they can then dip 8 quarts of smelt during the spring spawning run. The new regulation will reduce the spring harvest. In addition, it improves equity and levels the playing field among recreational and commercial user groups on waters open to commercial dealers. For example, on many waters a commercial dealer can dip 8 quarts, while a recreational dipper standing next to the commercial dealer can only dip 2 quarts.

* Require smelt dealers to use commercially manufactured graders. A grader is a passive sorting device that allows smaller fish to escape, which in the case of smelt are very fragile and not of suitable bait size, while retaining larger individuals. Currently, commercial dealers are required to use graders; however, many dealers are using "home-made" graders, which are ineffective and result in excessive, and unnecessary mortality to juvenile smelt with no market value.

* Commercial anglers will be required to report smelt catch information to MDIFW. Although this type of data is not always accurate, it provides a good tracking tool for monitoring fishery changes over time that would allow MDIFW to better manage and understand our commercial smelt fisheries.

* Educate and encourage dip-netters to avoid walking on smelt eggs during the spawning season. Spawning is a critical life stage of any species, and dip-netting activity has been shown to cause high egg mortality due physical damage and/or siltation. Increasing the awareness of this issue through education is a low cost technique that may ultimately improve survival.

* Investigate the feasibility of requiring graders/grader panels installed in the bottom of commercial drop nets. Existing grading systems require smelt to be removed from the source water and exposed to cold air temperatures. Juvenile smelt are extremely fragile, excessive and improper handling, as well as, exposure to extreme temperatures results in high mortality. A built-in grading system would allow young smelt to escape without handling or removal from the water. MDIFW hopes to partner with a commercial smelt dealer for this experimental project.

* MDIFW pathologist to investigate causes of commercial/retail smelt mortalities. Numerous smelt are lost during handling and transport, and substantial mortalities occur in wholesale and retail holding facilities. MDIFW's pathologist will investigate these losses and develop a resource guide for handling, transporting, and holding smelt to reduce mortality.

To date, we have presented the above proposals to the Commissioner's Office, the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council, the Smelt Working Group, and a number of commercial smelt dealers with encouraging results. Based on this process, we have already made modifications to the list of commercial smelt waters for the 2005 season. Over the next few months we hope to solicit additional input on these proposals from the general public. If you have any comments or concerns regarding the proposed changes then please feel free to contact Jim Pellerin at the Gray Regional Office.

Jim Pellerin is Assistant Regional Fisheries Biologist and Smelt Species Coordinator for the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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