Smelt decrease leaves some worried

6:49 PM, Feb 25, 2014   |    comments
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RANDOLPH, Maine (NECN) -- Biologists in Maine will meet with smelt camp owners next month to discuss an alarming decrease in the rainbow smelt fishery this winter.

Fishing for the small anadromous fish on tidal rivers has long been a popular winter past time there, but that tradition may be in jeopardy.

Anglers expected a banner season because the rivers iced up so early, but the smelts that migrate upriver to spawn barely showed up.

"It's been very slow, very, very bad," said Cindy Peaslee, who works at Worthing's Smelt Camp on the Kennebec River.  She says many of their shacks, which are normally filled with anglers, sat empty.

Business was so bad at Jim's Camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham, the owner pulled his shacks off the ice Monday -- weeks ahead of schedule. "It gets so that it costs me more to have 'em on than I'm making, so it was time for me to pull them, said Jim McPherson.

Biologists with the Department of Marine Resources say their twice a week surveys and sampling confirm what the camp owners say. The numbers are way down, espcially with the population of two year old smelts that normally dominate the spawning run.

Some of the camp owners believe dredging down river and the removal of the Edwards dam up river on the Kennebec are to blame. Biologists believe climate change may play a role.

"If the ocean isn't as cold in the winter, that's a long term stress for the fish, then if you have people fishing that's an additional stress along with pollution and other factors," said Gail Wipplehauser, a Department of Marine Resources Scientist.

And because nothing in nature happens in a vacuum, scientists worry about who else may go hungry if the smelts aren't there.

Camp owners worry about their own bottom line.

Jim McPherson had hoped to pass the business on to his daughter. "I fear the way things are going, there won't be a smelt fishing industry for her to carry on," he said. They are hoping this is just an off year and not the beginning of the end of a longstanding winter tradition in Maine.

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