BOWDOINHAM — The proprietors of Maine’s ice fishing shacks, where fishermen patiently sit by coolers of beer hoping to catch smelts they can batter and fry, say this winter was the season when the wriggling little fish finally came back to the state’s rivers and coastal streams.

But Maine officials caution that the smelts remain imperiled, and an advisory committee is set to decide Tuesday whether to recommend that the state enact new regulations to protect the dwindling population.

The fish are traditionally fished through the ice in winter and with dip nets in the spring, when they are spawning. But state officials shut down spring smelt fishing on the southern half of the coast last year, citing a dramatic population decline. State officials say spawning runs have declined by more than 50 percent compared with the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Jim McPherson, who runs 20 ice fishing shacks at Jim’s Camps in Bowdoinham on a tributary of the Kennebec River, said fishermen are catching as many as 150 smelts per day. A year ago, they would go days without catching any, he said.

“Last year there was right near zero smelts, and this year’s been a great improvement,” McPherson said.

Claire Enterline, the state’s smelt biologist, said smelts appear to be doing well every other year in the Kennebec River, which means 2016 could still be a bad year. Smelts first reproduce at 2 years old, and the population is dominated by the new class of spawning smelts, she said. The species, which has also drastically declined in southern New England, is challenged by pollution, habitat disruption, water temperature change and possibly invasive species, Enterline said.


“Next year might not be as good,” she said.

State officials propose to manage the smelt population by dividing the state into three smelt management zones with different catch limits for each. The strictest rules would be in the southern part of Maine, where there would be no fishing March 15 to June 30. The middle of the coast would have a one-quart daily limit, and the eastern coast a two-quart daily limit. Then, starting Dec. 1, 2015, there would be a four-quart daily limit until March 14 in the southern and midcoast areas. The four-quart daily limit would then apply from July 1 to March 14 of future years in those areas.

Sharon James, who works at the James Eddy Smelt Camps in Dresden, said ice fishermen’s catches have been up 100 percent from last year. She said she’s skeptical of the need for the state’s plan.

“We could go two or three years with a pretty dry spell, just small catches,” James said. “And then they will come again.”

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