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Jim’s Camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham normally has camps on the river by mid-January but so far, there is still no ice. Here, his camps are seen on the river in 2018. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

BOWDOINHAM — Warmer than average temperatures this winter have left local smelt fishing businesses without ice, or customers.

“It’s definitely put a halt on my income,” said Jim McPherson, who has run his smelt camp business on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham for about 50 years. The winter was looking promising in December but the state was hit with rain and warm temperatures around Christmas this year that wiped out the snow and ice.

According to the U.S. National Weather Services in Gray, January is off to a relatively warm start with temperatures running about 7-8 degrees above normal so far.

“I’m looking for some cold weather,” McPherson said, adding that weather forecasts are calling for cold temperatures next week or the following week, “if it gets here.”

Even if cold temperatures do arrive, it will still take a week or two to freeze the river enough so he can put out the fishing camps, McPherson said. At most, he would be looking at a week or two for ice fishing in total.

Thirty years ago, it was common to have the camps on the ice by Christmas, McPherson said, and he often kept them on until the first week in March. But for the last six to eight seasons, there hasn’t been enough ice until the second week of  January and he’s had to take the camps off the ice by the third week in February.

Ice fishing would be an added draw for families looking for outdoor activities during a pandemic as well, McPherson said. The shrinking seasons haven’t deterred him though.

“I’ve done this for a long time,” he said. “I’ve had lean winters and long winters and I’ve learned over the winners to prepare for a winter like this.”

James Eddy Smelt Camps on the Eastern River in Dresden is also taking a hit due to the late season, said Sharon James, who helps her son run the business. Last year, the camps weren’t on the river until the second week in  January, which also hurt.

“The people who do this, they count this as part of their income and right now, they’re just not getting it,” James said.

Given the unpredictability of recent winters, James said her family has had conversations about whether it’s worth keeping the smelt camp business her family has run for 60 years. For the past three or four years, the ice has come later and later, “and it makes it hard.”

The has also been a big change in the number of fish their customers can catch, James said.

“When we first started doing this, it wasn’t (unusual) for someone to go down there and catch 800 to 900 smelt on a tide but it’s slowly been dropping off,” James said. “But now they’re happy if they get 200.”

The smelt population has declined along the east coast over the last several decades, according to scientist Mike Brown with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“Maine’s smelt population remains the strongest among states in New England, though smelt populations have declined from historical highs,” Brown wrote in an email to The Times Record Tuesday.

The Portland Press Herald reported in February 2020 that the average Gulf of Maine commercial landings for smelt hovered at 600,000 pounds annually in the 1940s. That figure had dropped to 150,000 pounds by the 1960s and to less than 50,000 pounds in the 1980s and are even lower currently.

For the past few years, Brown said Tuesday that the state has seen an increase in the numbers and size of smelts in its fisheries survey. Recreational anglers have seen an improvement in the numbers of fish they are catching per trip as well, Brown said, “a good sign that the smelt population is expanding.”

According to Brown, the warm temperatures observed this winter so far will not impact the success of smelt spawning in the spring. Environmental conditions will play a larger role as smelt begin their spawning runs between March and June.

“High or low river flows, large rain events, sedimentation and abnormally warm or cold weather that occurs once smelt have laid their eggs can have a big impact on the spawning success and survival during any given year,” Brown states.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has said the reasons for the smelt decline aren’t well understood. To help gather more data the agency is partnering with Down East Salmon Federation, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and The Nature Conservancy to do a smelt spawning survey between March and June.

Volunteers will be recruited to survey locations in their area for spawning smelts, eggs, habitat conditions or other environmental factors, Brown said. There will be online training this winter for people who want to participate.


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