PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Ice fishing for smelts is a winter tradition in Maine, where the small fish are fried and eaten whole.
Fishermen and fish camp owners say this smelt-fishing season has been a robust one after the mild winter last year produced hardly any smelts. The ice has been thick enough for fishing and smelts have been abundant.
Jim McPherson, owner of Jim's Camps in Bowdoinham, said the season has been the best for smelt fishing at his camp in at least five years.
"The fish came back this year, more than I've seen in the last few years," McPherson said. "A lot of people caught their quota. I think the cycle is coming around and they are on the increase again."
Smelts are part of many culinary traditions — from the use of their eggs in sushi to the practice among Italian-American families of incorporating them into Christmas Eve dinners. Maine's rainbow smelts are particularly sought after.
But the nationwide catch has plummeted in recent years. And the stock as a whole in Maine remains far below historical levels, said Michael Brown, a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Although still readily available to seafood lovers partly because of fisheries in California and the Great Lakes states, smelts have declined considerably there, too, since the 1990s.
Federal officials say contributing to the decline is the disruption of habitat, a lack of suitable places for the fish to spawn and warming waters with climate change.
To help rebuild the population, Maine has restricted smelt fishing. And sample studies show that larger smelt appear more abundant than in past years, Brown said.
"We remain optimistic that with the right fisheries management and environmental conditions that the coastal smelt population can continue to improve," he said.
The state bans smelt fishing from March 15 to June 30 along the coast from the New Hampshire border to Owl's Head, Maine. Maine also limits how many smelts can be fished along parts of the coast.