Delayed ice cramps fishermen’s appetite, hunt for crucial fish | Science and the environment

Associate Press, State Newspaper

The lack of ice in some cold weather this year has made it difficult for scientists to study ecologically important fish populations.

Rainbow smelters, small fish very popular among ice fishermen, have been the focus of conservationists for many years. The federal government listed the fish as a particularly important species more than 15 years ago due to the decline in its numbers.

In Maine, a late winter has made it difficult to collect data on the health of smelting populations. The weather was much warmer than usual until early February, so there wasn’t enough snow to try and catch them.

Other states where ice fishing is a winter tradition, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire, have faced similar problems. Snow is snowing in many states now, but the season will likely be shorter than usual.

“With the season starting so late, we haven’t had many opportunities to sample commercial and recreational catches this year,” said Michael Brown, a fisheries scientist for Maine.

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Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, state officials said last month that people should limit smelting consumption from Lake Superior due to contamination from PFAS, synthetic compounds known as “forever chemicals.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources found high levels of PFAS called PFAS in two locations, near the Apostle Islands and outside Port Wing, which led to the recommendation to only eat the Lake Superior rainbow scent once a month.

Smelters are important because they are an essential part of the food chain in coastal areas, lakes, and rivers. The reason for its low population is the subject of ongoing scientific study. Brown said habitat loss and climate change have the biggest impact on the melt populations. Poaching has also played a role, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and other authorities.

Recreational anglers looking for smelters through the ice, as in the molten campsites that line Maine’s waterways in winter, are fond of frying and eating them while the head remains. Others use fish as bait.

The lack of ice has been a blow to businesses that rely on winter fishing. On Lake Erie, ice fishing boat captain Tony Musioni said thick ice finally arrived about three weeks ago, about four weeks later than usual. Muscioni, which owns Air1Airboats, which flies flights from Port Clinton, Ohio, said it’s a continuation of a troubling trend from recent years.

“These past few years have been bad,” said Muscioni, whose clients are mostly looking for walleye. “This year came late — we didn’t think we’d get it, but we did. You just have to keep an eye on where you’re going now.”

Steve Leighton, owner of Leighton Smelt Camps in Bodwinham, Maine, said he’s looking at a tough year, too, financially.

“I’m just going to try to pay the expenses for now, and I don’t know if I can do that,” Leighton said. “If I reach 27th place, I will be happy.”

State wildlife departments have warned people to take precautions on the snow this year.

Tom Hawley, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said Bangor was more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in Maine in January.

Holly said rivers in the state that typically have 20 inches of ice, such as the Piscataquis and Meduxnekeag, are less than 10 inches this year. He said it is up to a difficult year to hunt.

“In lakes, they probably have enough ice to do that, but even there they don’t have nearly as much ice as they normally would,” Hawley said.

Commercial fishermen in America fished millions of pounds from rainbow smelters in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, but fishing collapsed in the 2000s.

Fishermen took in less than £50,000 in 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available, Federal Data State. Most commercial catches are located in Michigan, although Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota have also recorded catches in recent years.

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