ELLSWORTH — Maine’s smelt fishery is far from the largest in volume, and it’s very, very far from the top in value, but the little silvery fish stirs strong feelings among a group of Mainers who ascribe an almost mythic quality to the toothy delicacy that runs up many of the state’s coastal brooks from the sea each spring to spawn.
Recently, the Department of Marine Resources held a public hearing in the Ellsworth City Hall auditorium to take comment on proposed regulations changing the way the smelt fishery will be managed throughout the state. Though the crowd might have fit comfortably in a decent-sized closet (and came almost entirely from Penobscot), there was no mistaking any of the speakers’ ardor for smelt fishing or concern about the way the fishery is managed.
DMR’s proposal would divide the state into three zones: Zone 1, west of Owl’s Head in Penobscot Bay; Zone 2, between Owl’s Head and Naskeag Point in Brooklin; and Zone 3, from Naskeag Point to the Lubec-Campobello Island bridge.
No smelt fishing would be allowed in Zone 1 except for a daily 4-quart limit for smelts taken through the ice.
In Zone 2, fishermen could take 1 quart per day, five days per week, during the smelt’s March 15-June 30 spawning season. A 4-quart daily limit would be in place during the remainder of the year.
In Zone 3, where DMR research suggests that the spring spawning runs are stable or even increasing, there would be a 2-quart daily limit during the spring spawning run and no limit outside of spawning season. Zone 3 also would be the only one of the three in which a commercial fishery – with the exception of the ice fishery on the Kennebec River – would be permitted.
DMR biologist Claire Enterline said the new regulations were a response to data from department fyke net surveys in a number of streams and from NOAA Fisheries Service trawl surveys in Penobscot Bay and elsewhere.
Rainbow smelt, which once spawned in brooks throughout the Northeast, are now only rarely found west of Maine. Spawning runs appear to be in serious trouble west of Penobscot Bay.
Three of the four people who spoke at the hearing came from Penobscot.
Bailey Bowden, the town’s Shellfish Committee chairman, said he believed that DMR was trying to manage the rainbow smelt resource without a good scientific basis, and “in some cases, DMR is not protecting the resource enough based on the available data.” The proposed regulation represented “an extreme policy shift” on DMR’s part” from its 2012 recommendations that, he said, included no reference to area closures or bag limits.
Cordell W. Gross, 70, recalled smelt fishing in the Bagaduce River while he was in high school, and catching 2 or 3 quarts was considered a good day. Thirty years ago, though, “the smelt disappeared. If you got one in a winter you were doing good.”
When he went smelting last year, he said, “I didn’t see a fish.”
Bill Hutchins, Penobscot’s road commissioner, said he hadn’t seen a lot of smelt in the Bagaduce recently until last winter when he was able to “cut a hole in the ice, and they bit like piranhas.”
All three men urged DMR to improve its collection of data on smelt runs east of the Penobscot.
“It wouldn’t offend me at all to make out catch reports” that would give DMR more accurate landings data, Hutchins said. “I don’t think most people would object.”