Maine’s beloved smelts rebounded somewhat in 2015, but state biologists say the little fish is still appearing in lower numbers than in recent years.

Ice fishing for smelts is a tradition in Maine, where fishermen pan fry or deep fry the wriggling fish and eat them whole. They are the main attraction of the annual Downeast Smelt Fry, which for years has drawn residents to tiny Columbia Falls to nosh on fried smelts and blueberry cobbler for $5 a plate.

But state officials say spawning runs have declined by more than 50 percent compared to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fishing camp operators said the fish all but disappeared in some areas last year, and the state shut down spring smelt fishing on the southern half of the coast in 2014.

Surveys by scientists found more smelts caught this past winter than in 2014, Maine smelt biologist Claire Enterline said. The totals were also slightly higher than in 2010 and 2012, though slightly less than in 2009, 2011 and 2013, she said. The data will not be finalized until this fall.

Smelt camp proprietors also said they had stronger smelt abundance in 2015.

“It was better than the year before, but still not up to what it should be,” said Jim McPherson, who runs 20 ice fishing shacks. “Business was better than last year – without the fish, the customers don’t come.”

Scientists say smelts face challenges such as pollution, water temperature change, habitat disruption and possibly invasive species.

The fish is listed as a “species of concern” by the National Marine Fisheries Service and it has experienced dramatic declines in the southern parts of its range, which conservationists say once extended to the Chesapeake Bay and now stops north of Long Island. The southern extent of the range, per survey data, appears to now be Massachusetts, Enterline said.

The smelts live in estuaries and offshore waters and spawn in shallow freshwater streams every spring.

Fishermen typically seek them through the ice in winter and with dip nets in the spring. But the state enacted new rules this year that are designed to protect the health of the species.

The new rules mean no smelt fishing in the southern part of Maine from March 15 to June 30. They also create a one-quart daily limit for the middle of Maine’s coast and a two-quart daily limit for the eastern coast from March 15 to June 30. The southern and middle coast areas will also have four-quart daily limits for the rest of the year starting on Dec. 1.