(NECN: Amy Sinclair, Randolph, Maine) - Biologists in Maine will meet with smelt camp owners next month to discuss an alarming decrease in the rainbow smelt fishery this winter.
Fishing for the small, anadromous fish on tidal rivers has long been a popular winter past time there, but that tradition may be in jeopardy.
Anglers expected a banner season because the rivers iced up so early, but the smelts that migrate upriver to spawn barely showed up.
"Very slow. Very, very bad," said Cindy Peaslee who works at Worthing's Smelt Camp on the Kennebec River.
Peaslee says many of their shacks, which are normally filled with anglers, sat empty.
Business was so bad at Jim's Camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham, the owner pulled his shacks off the ice Monday, weeks ahead of schedule.
"It costs me more to have themem on than I'm making, so it's time to pull them," said owner Jim McPherson.
Biologists with the Department of Marine Resources say their twice-a-week surveys and sampling confirm what the camp owners say. The numbers are way down, espcially in the population of two-year-old smelts that normally dominate the spawning run.
Some of the camp owners believe dredging downriver and the removal of the Edwards Dam upriver on the Kennebec are to blame. Biologists believe climate change may play a role, as the small, silvery fish were once present as far south as New Jersey.
"If the ocean isn't as cold in the wintertime, that's a long-term stress on fish," said Gail Wipplehauser, a Department of Marine Resources scientist. "Then if you have people fishing for them, that's an additional stress."
And because nothing in nature happens in a vacuum, scientists worry about who else may go hungry if the smelts aren't there.
Camp owners worry about their own bottom line. McPherson had hoped to pass the business on to his daughter.
"I fear that the way things are going, there may not be a smelt fishing industry for her to take over and carry it on," he said.
They are hoping this is just an off year, and not the beginning of the end of a longstanding winter tradition in Maine.