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Smelt populations have crashed in U.S., devastating fishing industry

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

The recent cold spell has meant ice fishing at more lakes in Michigan. Some anglers go after a tiny fish called smelt in the cold water. In the past, people went after them during spawning runs using dip nets. But smelt populations have crashed.

Bob Ruleau with Ruleau Brothers, Inc. in Stephenson, Michigan is a commercial fisher licensed to catch smelt. He says a lot of things combined to devastate the smelt fishery over the last 30 years, including predation by larger fish, zebra and quagga mussels, and the climate.

“We had colder winters and colder water. And smelt don’t like warm water. You know, they don’t care for it at all,” he said.

His company didn’t catch any smelt last year.

“The year prior we had a couple drags that was decent while we were trying to catch them,” Ruleau said.

But, he had a hard time selling the catch. With irregular smelt harvests in Lake Michigan, the Canadians gained a lot of the smelt sales contracts.

According to the Associated Press, commercial fishers used to haul in millions of pounds of smelt in the U.S., a lot of it from Lake Michigan. The last year for which there are numbers, 2018, there was a total catch of about 50,000 pounds.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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