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Smelt Populations Dwindles
By Bob Kelleher
May 6, 1999
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The rainbow smelt are running this week in Lake Superior. Years ago, the smelt run drew huge crowds to Lake Superior beaches, where fish were netted by hand and cooked over open fires. Raucous all-night beach parties fueled by generous doses of alcohol achieved mythical status around the big lake. But now, the big smelt runs are history.

CLARENCE SWENSON IS NETTING SMELT, but not many. Wrapped in a dirty yellow rain coat, tattered shirt and sweater, Swenson works through the icy dawn chill settled over the Duluth Harbor. With grey chin stubble, and floppy black stocking cap, Swenson looks the part of a fisherman who's pulled his nets from the lake's cold water for 40 years. He's come aboard another lake trawler to see if his competitors are doing any better. Today's nets wiggle with walleye, perch, and a lot of little green River Ruffe, but very few smelt. The fishing, he says, has been lousy.
Swenson: They just, they haven't come in for some reason. They may be out in the lake, but they're not in the bay down here. Not much of anything. Each year gets just less and less, and now it's just a matter of, I don't know, too bull-headed to quit, I guess.
It wasn't always this way. In the 1970's, Swenson netted more smelt than he could use. Everyone did. The stories are the stuff of legend. There were so many rainbow smelt in Lake Superior, just about anyone with a sturdy net, or even a big plastic bag, could be guaranteed a huge catch. In all-night parties, smelt were scooped into buckets and cooked; garbage cans were filled; even whole pickup loads were hauled away. Smelt were so common they were used as food and fertilizer.
Swenson: Well, people come from all over creation, you know, just to come up on the different rivers and dip, and just kind of, more or less, party for the weekend. They come Friday nights and get their tents or campers or Winnebagos and find a spot and make a little fire on the beach and just have a ball, you know?
It was the golden age of Lake Superior's smelt. But it was also an anomaly. Starting in the 1950's natural populations of lake herring and trout were decimated by Sea Lamprey, a voracious predator from the Atlantic Ocean. Rainbow smelt, a small and nimble transplant from the Pacific, were ready to move in from Lake Michigan where they'd been introduced accidentally. With a nearly empty Lake Superior before them they flourished; building into huge numbers that peaked with the spring smelt fishing frenzy in the 1970's.

And then, they began to disappear.

Don Schreiner is a Fisheries Manager, based at the Department of Natural Resources French River Hatchery North of Duluth.

Schreiner: You know, the decline can be attributed to a number of factors; first is that they are a non-native species. They came into a situation where there were no smelt, so they exploded. They then reached some sort of equilibrium and then fell down to a certain level. And then on top of that there's been increased predation by lake trout, chinook salmon, coho salmon, and a variety of other species.
A resurgence of large predator fish has been good for the fishing economy, but tough on the smelt.

With sea lamprey numbers now controlled by trapping and poisons, stocked trout and salmon have done well - and enjoy smelt snacks. They draw anglers from the upper Midwest. But many of the large stocked fish are non-native salmon species. That draws the ire of lake preservationists such as Glen Maxham of Duluth. He considers the salmon a plague, and in particular the chinook salmon, which he calls "big hogs," for their huge appetites of smelt and native lake superior fish including coaster brook trout.

Maxham: These are fish that we in the Save Lake Superior Association feel should not be in the lake. They're harmful fish. The failure of the coaster brook trout to come back, is due to predation, one of the reasons, predation by these exotics. The reason they're not coming back, now, is because, when they try to put them in, the DNR, they're being eaten.
Maxham wants an end to exotic fish stocking. He says that would help native fish, and just might help the rainbow smelt recover. Others propose a more aggressive approach to reduce the number of predators in the Lake by actively fishing them out.

The DNR's Don Schreiner says it's not likely there will be an open season any time soon on the very fish stocked for decades and so prized by anglers.

Schreiner: You know, some of the preservation groups would like us to go actively remove the non-native species. And I don't think we're in any shape to go out and do that. You know, we're probably moving towards not continually supplementing those species, and just letting them find some sort of a level that the lake will support.
Recreational boaters and charter captains want to keep the exotics in the lake, as well as the smelt they feed on.

Charter Operator Dave Kozenkny of Duluth, has called for a moratorium on commercial netting of smelt. He proposes better management of smelt and other forage fish that feed the predators his customers pay to catch.

Kozenkny: Until those numbers get back up, somebody has got to step in and say enough is enough. We've got to manage the food that the fish like to eat. After all, we've spent millions of dollars over the years to rehabilitate Lake Superior and to bring that fishery back, so why not manage the forage, which includes the smelt, so that the fish have something to eat?

But Commercial anglers have little left except smelt to make a living. And that living is dwindling.

Trawler captain Mel Johnson has just checked his nets in the Duluth Harbor. Standing on board The Provider, at a Superior Dock, he glances at the turn of the century brick warehouse of Sivertson Fish Company. Johnson recalls just ten years ago when he'd catch as many smelt in a single day as he now catches in a week.

Johnson: And we were busy from morning till night; yah, when the fish were running good.

The lack of Smelt, he says, is a big blow for Siverstsons; a family-based fishing company that's facing a slow demise.

Johnson: Oh, yes, it makes it very difficult. This whole place was built on smelt. This is this is the only take they really had that was really good. So it's making it difficult, it's real difficult for this company to survive, with the fishing this way.
Despite the best intentions of fishery managers, the future for the smelt and all the other fish in Lake Superior is anything but clear. New species seem to appear every year. No one knows the likely long-term impact of recent arrivals such as round gobies, river ruffe and zebra mussels. And no one knows what might arrive next, accidentally dumped from a bait bucket or hitching a ride in the ballast of an ocean going ship. But few believe there will ever again be huge schools of Rainbow Smelt, to be served as the guests of honor at spring season beach parties.