Never Smelt So Good: The 16th Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA – Chris 

By: Lindsey Jones, C.J. Pellegrini, Elsa Kern-Lovick

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw giving the class information about the area and the work the DSF does

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw giving the class information about the area and the work the DSF does. This is the beautiful view from the back porch of the DSF office, which overlooks the Pleasant River at the site of the former dam. Photo credit: Natalie Springuel

Last Saturday, April 16th, our Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class attended the annual smelt fry held in Columbia Falls, Maine, where we all had a great time, filling our bellies with smelt and even learning a few things while at it!

The smelt dinner plate - fried smelt, cole slaw, beans, and a dinner roll, not pictured is the delicious blueberry cobbler with whipped cream that was included

The smelt dinner plate – fried smelt, cole slaw, beans, and a dinner roll, not pictured is the delicious blueberry cobbler with whipped cream that was included. Photo credit: Lindsey Jones

For sixteen years, the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) has held its annual smelt fry in Columbia Falls, in Washington county, Maine, and each year the community event grows in size and turnout. The Smelt Fry is an effective way to educate the visitors about the Downeast Salmon Federation’s efforts to reestablish the Atlantic salmon population, but is also a wonderful way to bring the community together. Community events like this facilitate the sharing of stories, provide a place to shake off the winter frost and a time to meet family, friends, neighbors, and strangers over a delicious Maine meal.

The smelt breading and frying station at the Downeast Salmon Federation’s Annual Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration  Photo credit - Chris Petersen

The smelt breading and frying station at the Downeast Salmon Federation’s Annual Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration Photo credit – Chris Petersen

Our Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities course at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor travelled to Columbia Falls for the smelt fry to volunteer at the event and speak with community members about the local fisheries. Students handed out popcorn in the historic Union Hall, cooked hot dogs in the sun, washed dishes, greeted event-goers, and breaded smelt for frying. In volunteering, students assisted the local community members who make an event like this possible. One student breaded smelt with two sisters who have been breading and frying smelt since the event began sixteen years ago. The sisters described the process of frying smelt under a tent in a small fryer in the early years of the event. Now, with a few more breaders and a much larger fryer, they provide the delicious fried fish to hundreds of attendees. After an especially warm and sunny day spent at the event, the students returned home with new knowledge about Atlantic salmon, smelt, sustainable fishing, the Pleasant River Dam and the community of Columbia Falls.

According to a hatchery worker, these are spent smelt eggs that were found along the banks of the Pleasant River estuary

According to a hatchery worker, these are spent smelt eggs that were found along the banks of the Pleasant River estuary. Photo Credit: C.J. Pellegrini

The featured fish of the day, rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax), are small anadromous fish – meaning that they migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. They spend most of the year within a mile from the coast but in early spring, before the ice breaks up, smelt move into freshwater creeks and begin spawning when the water temperatures are above 40°F. They usually congregate in coastal streams and rivers at night above the head of the tide. The female fish is attended by several males who fertilize her sticky eggs as she lays them on the substrate. It is not uncommon for rainbow smelt to visit several freshwater rivers during the spawning season, however this mainly depends on distance between the river mouths. Depending on the water temperature, the baby smelt hatch from their eggs within 16 to 25 days and drift out to sea.

Maine has had a long commercial smelt fishing history, however as early as 1863 people here already knew that smelt populations were declining. During that time the annual catch rates were more than one million pounds per year and by the 1940’s that number had abruptly dropped. In 2004, smelt were listed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a species of concern. Today, Maine still supports a small commercial smelt industry however catch limits have waned in comparison to those of the past.

“Washington County is the last stronghold for smelt and many other sea-run fish.  Efforts to monitor and restore our local smelt populations have helped to keep the fishery open for current and future generations to enjoy.” -Downeast Salmon Federation’s pamphlet

Anadromous Fish Recovery in Maine

The smelt fry was organized by the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF), not the “downeast smelt federation” because smelts aren’t quite famous enough to warrant the devoted efforts of an entire organization. The DSF, while initially focused on Atlantic salmon, also works to support the recovery of other fish species and their habitats along rivers in eastern Maine.  The DSF is a non-profit group run out of Columbia Falls, where the smelt fry event was held.  Their mission is “to conserve wild Atlantic salmon and its habitat. To that end, we work to restore a viable sports fishery for all to enjoy. DSF is committed to protect important river, scenic, recreational and ecological resources in eastern Maine.”

Migrating adult Atlantic salmon

Migrating adult Atlantic salmon. Photo Credit: Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission

Like the rainbow smelt, Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are an anadromous fish. After spending about two years at sea, adult salmon travel over 2,000 miles from their feeding grounds off the coast of Greenland and–astonishingly–are able to find their way back to the very same river that they were born in. These spawning runs, as they are called, were historically very prolific along the whole New England coastline. However, due to the construction of dams, pollution, and overfishing, Atlantic salmon no longer inhabit their historic range in the United States except for here in the state of Maine. And yet, even in Maine, they are completely extinct from 14 of the state’s watersheds leaving populations hanging on in only eight remaining river systems. Since the year 2000, Atlantic salmon have been listed as an endangered species.

Releasing fry into the Pleasant River

Releasing fry into the Pleasant River. Photo Credit: Pleasant River Hatchery

One important aspect of the DSF’s work is to provide education programs in downeast Maine. A unique program they run, called Salmon in Schools  brings salmon eggs from the hatcheries into local schools, where students are directly involved in raising and releasing the salmon once they grow into the fry stage.  At the event on Saturday, a few students from our class had the pleasure of meeting some high school students that participated in this program and put our knowledge of salmon to shame.  Through this program, the smelt fry, and many others, it was evident that the DSF is really ingrained in the community and works hard to get community members involved in the protection of the local fishery resources.

Downeast Salmon Federation headquarters in Columbia Falls, Maine, the site of the Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration.  The Pleasant River Salmon Hatchery is housed in the main building pictured, the river just behind

Downeast Salmon Federation headquarters in Columbia Falls, Maine, the site of the Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration. The Pleasant River Salmon Hatchery is housed in the main building pictured, the river just behind. Photo credit: Natalie Springuel

Upon our class’s arrival to the smelt fry, Dwayne Shaw, Executive Director of DSF, kindly offered to give us an introduction to the area and the work that DSF does to protect fish and the marine environment in eastern Maine. Dwayne told our class about the Columbia Falls Dam, which was once a hydroelectric power plant. The dam was removed in 1988 and at its site lies the current DSF office and salmon hatchery. Dams are major roadblocks to fish passage, and without a proper fish ladder, the movement of diadromous fish is blocked. Our trip to work on the Somesville fish ladder the day before gave us a good preface to this topic; see the blog post about it here. The DSF is working hard to advocate for the removal of other dams in the rivers of eastern Maine to restore important salmon or anadromous fish habitat.

One of the best things to do at the smelt fry (from a biologist’s perspective at least) is to take a tour through DSF’s Atlantic salmon hatchery.Though it might not look like much from the outside, inside the historic small building and down in the basement you’ll find the sizeable Pleasant River Hatchery for Atlantic salmon. We were given an informative tour of the hatchery by the DSF Hatchery Supervisor, Kyle Winslow. To our amazement, Kyle pointed to a tank that was no bigger than a bathtub, called a salmon nest, and said that there were about 60,000 salmon alevin in there! Alevin is the term for newly hatched salmon, who spend up to 30 days lying between the spaces of the gravel and growing from the nutrients of their yolk sac, attached to the underside of their body.

The juvenile salmon, known as “fry” and later “parr”, live up to 3 years in freshwater feeding on aquatic invertebrates before they leave for the open ocean. From the DSF Hatchery, salmon fry will be released in May right into the adjacent Pleasant River. This input of hundreds of thousands of healthy young salmon will help the endangered populations of salmon recover in the rivers of Maine, so that one day there can once again be a strong, self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon.

COA students from the Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Community class conversing with attendees of the Smelt Fry in Columbia Falls

COA students from the Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Community class conversing with attendees of the Smelt Fry in Columbia Falls. Photo Credit: C.J. Pellegrini

The 16th Annual Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration was quite a success in raising awareness for important fish species like smelt and Atlantic salmon that need river systems, and the event brought together members of the Downeast Maine community, whose support for Maine fish is vital to their continued survival. Community events like the smelt fry are important to bring people from various backgrounds together to work towards a collective vision to keep local fisheries healthy for all, while having a great time! Want to help in the recovery of smelt or Atlantic salmon in Maine?  This website has some good ideas and you can visit DSF’s site to find out how to help out with their programs.

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw, with Chris Petersen

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw, with Chris Petersen. Photo credit: C.J. Pellegrini

Editor postscript: College of the Atlantic and Downeast Salmon Federation are both partners in the Downeast Fisheries Partnership.  Special thanks to Dwayne, Kyle, and the other members of DSF including new staff member and COA alum Brett Ciccotelli for putting on such a great event. 

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