AUGUSTA, Maine — Citing a decline in smelt abundance, the Maine Department of Marine Resources announced on Tuesday that spring smelt fishing on coastal tributaries between Stonington and the New Hampshire border will be closed starting March 14.
Any smelt camps still operating on the Kennebec and its tributaries will be exempt from the closure, DMR commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a press release.
According to the release, the closure will last for 90 days, which will include spring spawning runs, when smelts head into freshwater tributaries and are particularly vulnerable to capture by fishermen.
Though some commercial smelting takes place in Maine, the DMR is targeting recreational anglers with the closure, Keliher said.
“Based on our ongoing surveys of the fishery, we will decide on management actions for next year,” Keliher said.
According to the release, in 2004 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the rainbow smelt, which are consumed by seals, striped bass, cod, great blue herons and other animals, as a “Species of Concern.”
Over the next five years, the DMR sought to identify a majority of the smelt-spawning sites in the state. That data was compared with previously gathered information, and a stark reality was revealed.
“Comparing the strength of runs to data collected by DMR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1970s and 1980s, we found that more than 50 percent of the runs which had previously supported spawning smelts no longer did, or had severely reduced or limited spawning,” said Claire Enterline, DMR resource specialist.
Those surveys also showed that the most drastic decline had occurred south of the Penobscot River, from Stonington to Kittery, where only 38 percent of historic spawning sites were supporting spawning runs. North of the Penobscot, runs had declined, but 61 percent of the historic sites still support runs.
“This is why the decision was made to close only the southern portion of the state,” Keliher said in the release.
Data gathered since 2009, when the initial study ended, have supported the data gathered over that five-year span. In addition, data shows that the size of smelts present at spawning sites also has decreased in the upper Casco Bay and Kennebec River, Enterline said.
The DMR says a loss of spawning habitat is one culprit, as is access to the habitat that does exist.
“Roads and stream crossings that prevent small fish like smelt from moving upstream make it impossible for them to reach their spawning grounds,” Enterline said.