During the winter, individual smelt shacks dot the ice of Merrymeeting Bay, and lines of commercial smelt camps adorn the more popular eddies. Anglers flock from all over New England to fish and have fun pursuing the slender, silvery smelt.

As the ice thickens along the banks of the Kennebec, however, the question arises: Just how much longer will anglers be fishing for rainbow smelt in the tidal waters of Maine?

The rainbow smelt population is declining. An emergency rule last year closed the spring tidal dip-net fishery in the southern and midcoast part of the state, and biologists are looking to balance the needs of protecting a declining species against the recreational and economic needs of a popular fishery.

Claire Enterline is a fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Along with other riverine species, smelt are one of her specialties. She and DMR are attempting to stem the tide that has affected states to the south.

“Rainbow smelt populations have been contracting in range over the last century. Historically, populations were found from Chesapeake Bay to Labrador, but the current southern extent of the range is likely Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. This range contraction has occurred rapidly, in less than 100 years, with a pronounced population reduction in the past 20 years,” said Enterline. “Within the past 20 years, smelt populations have disappeared in Connecticut and Rhode Island.”

Is the same happening here in Maine?

“Department surveys have shown that Maine smelt populations have become reduced in many portions of the state,” said Enterline. “Comparing the number and strength of spawning runs currently to that of the late 1970s, we’ve found that many runs have declined while others are no longer in existence.”

Those who have spent nights pursuing the fish over the past few years in Merrymeeting Bay know that the smelts just don’t seem to be there like they were in the past, and DMR surveys back that up.

“The low abundance of adult smelt in the Kennebec in the winter of 2013-14 follows six years of low juvenile abundance, leading to a reduced adult population,” said Enterline.

The reduction was pronounced enough for DMR to close the popular spring dip-netting fishery in much of southern and midcoast Maine. This winter, the department is looking to further protect the species with a strict smelt-possession limit.

The proposed rule would limit smelt anglers to a 4-quart possession limit of the silver-sided fish. While 4 quarts may seem more than enough, it is in stark contrast to the days when fisherman measured their catch in gallons, and filling a 5-gallon bucket was a good night. It also would reinstitute the spring dip-net closure in much of Maine.

With the emergency closure now expired, DMR sought to implement these new protections that included a 4-quart limit and a closure of the spring dip-net fishery in much of the state.

Two public hearings and a public comment period, however, did raise the issue of other mitigating factors that have earned anglers a reprieve, if only for a while.

Dredging in the lower Kennebec River and construction of the new Kennebec River Bridge in Dresden could have impacted smelt movement last year. Any new rules concerning smelt fishing through the ice on tidal rivers would not be voted on until midwinter and wouldn’t go into effect until December 2015. The proposed rule would once again ban spring dip-netting of smelts in southern and midcoast tidal rivers.

So, with a reprieve of a year, what is being done and what can you do to help?

DMR has already contacted commercial smelt camp owners and informed them of their management plan. The department is working with other agencies to increase smelt habitat protection around streams, and reduce barriers for smelt spawning such as replacing undersized or overhanging culverts, and removing head-of-tide dams.

Anglers can do their part by participating in DMR’s new recreational smelt logbook program. Information about this program and how to sign up can be found at www.maine.gov/dmr/smelt/logbook.htm. DMR will also continue to survey the smelt populations through creel surveys, through the spring fyke net survey, a near-shore trawl survey and a juvenile survey, and work with local groups to perform more presence/absence surveys.

So if you plan on smelting this year, consider participating in the logbook program, and help provide information that is critical in saving a fishery that truly is a Maine tradition.

Mark Latti is a registered Maine guide and the landowner relations/recreational access coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.