Spring smelt fishery closed in some parts of Maine

Mar 11, 2014

Augusta — In order to allow Maine’s smelt fishery to recover from a decline in abundance in the southern half of the coast, the Maine Department of Marine Resources has announced the closure of the state’s spring smelt fishery from Stonington to the New Hampshire border, beginning March 14.

“This closure will impact those who dip smelts in our coastal tributaries for recreational purposes,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. “Smelt are particularly vulnerable at this time as they move into these areas to spawn. What few smelt camps that remain on the Kennebec and its tributaries will be exempt from this closure.”

Implemented through emergency rulemaking, the closure will last 90 days, which covers the spring spawning runs. “Based on our on-going surveys of the fishery, we will decide on management actions for next year,” said Keliher.

Recent Department surveys have shown that smelt populations are declining in many portions of Maine. “Between 2005 and 2009, DMR and the Maine Marine Patrol documented a majority of the smelt spawning sites in Maine,” said DMR Resource Specialist Claire Enterline. “Comparing the strength of runs to data collected by DMR and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1970’s and 1980’s, we found that more than 50 percent of the runs which had previously supported spawning smelts no longer did, or had severely reduced or limited spawning.”

The surveys also revealed that the majority of the decline in spawning activity is taking place in the southern half of the coast. Of the surveyed sites that historically supported smelt runs, only 38 percent of the sites south of Penobscot Bay were documented to currently support spawning runs, while 61 percent of sites downeast still support runs. “This is why the decision was made to close only the southern portion of the coast,” said Keliher.

More recent data confirms the earlier survey. “Data collected during annual spawning and creel surveys have also shown that the size of fish has declined when compared to historical records of upper Casco Bay and Kennebec River populations,” said Enterline.

“Because of these documented population declines and evidence of biologically stressed populations, I felt it was necessary to close this fishery in the southern half of the coast to help sustain and restore this species,” said Keliher.

In 2004, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the rainbow smelt as a federal Species of Concern. The rainbow smelt is a small fish that lives in estuaries and offshore waters, and spawns in shallow freshwater streams each spring. Its numbers have dropped dramatically during the last fifteen to twenty years for reasons that are not well understood. While the state supports a small commercial smelt fishery, the majority of smelt are caught by recreational harvesters. Many animals including seals, striped bass, codfish, great blue herons, and others eat smelt.

One of the major threats to smelt recovery identified by DMR research is a loss of spawning habitat and access to spawning habitat. “Roads and stream crossings that prevent small fish like smelt from moving upstream make it impossible for them to reach their spawning grounds,” said Enterline.

“Although small in size, this fish has played a big role in Maine’s coastal ecosystem and economy, which is why we’re taking this step to ensure its recovery” said Keliher.

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