Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Paul Koenig
An early freeze brought smelt fishing shacks out along the Kennebec River and other tributaries of Merrymeeting Bay before January, but some operators might cut their seasons short for a reason unrelated to the thickness of the ice: a lack of fish.
Andy James walks by shacks Wednesday at Baker’s Smelt Camps in Pittson. Baker’s is closing early this winter because of a much-reduced rainbow smelt catch, which biologists say may be the worst on record.
Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal
The lead smelt biologist for the state and smelt camp operators say this has been the worst season for smelt they’ve ever seen.
The biologist, Claire Enterline, a marine scientist for the state Department of Marine Resources, said surveys of the recreational fishing camps show the lowest total of fish caught per line per hour since the department has been collecting the data.
The state conducted the surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and restarted them in 2009. The majority of smelt camp operators made similar observations.
“This is the worst year in the 38 years I’ve been renting smelt camps,” said Mike Baker, an owner of Baker’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River in Pittston. Baker said people used to catch 100 or 200 smelt a night. This year, people maybe caught around 50 on a good night, he said. He’s planning to close the camps for the season on Sunday.
Sharon James, who said she’s been working in the smelt camp rental business for more than 50 years, also said it’s the worst year she’s ever seen. “It’s been really spotty this year. Some days they’ll catch two or three dozen. Other days they don’t catch maybe but a dozen,” she said.
James works at James Eddy Smelt Camp Rental in Dresden, which is owned by her sons, George and Peter James, and she said they’ve hauled in 20 of about 35 camps on the Kennebec River because of the shortage of fish. “We can’t leave them out there if they aren’t bringing in any money,” she said.
Sonny Newton, owner of Sonny’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River in Dresden, also said the season has been one of the worst he’s ever experienced.
Enterline said it’s not clear what’s causing the poor smelt season along the Kennebec River area.
Some of the operators have theories: dredging in the Bath area disturbing the fish swimming up the river, high tides making navigation difficult, or colder-than-usual temperatures affecting the fish.
In the early 19th century, rainbow smelt were plentiful as far south as New Jersey, but the populations have contracted sharply in the last century, Enterline said. Within the past 20 years, the species has disappeared completely from Connecticut and possibly Rhode Island, she said. Populations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine continue to decline. The population farther north along the Maine coast, in the Down East region, appears to be more stable, but there aren’t enough data to show that area isn’t also facing a decline, Enterline said.
Annual landings in Maine for rainbow smelt exceeded 1 million pounds in the late 19th century, but commercial catches dropped off abruptly after the 1940s, according to a joint report from marine resource departments in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Currently, commercial smelt fishing is allowed only in several rivers in Washington County in Maine, and the landings between 2006 and 2009 totaled 3,803 pounds, according to the Maine department.
Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts completed a joint regional conservation plan in 2012 documenting historical fisheries and the current status of rainbow smelt, listed by the federal government as a species of concern in 2004, along with possible threats to the species. Enterline said threats include problems moving to spawning grounds because of structural impediments such as dams and culverts, and the degradation of the water quality at spawning grounds.
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