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Yes, It's a smelt, Mr Jeffries

It seems ages ago now that I posted my first Trust Facebook post, although it’s not actually much more than four months ago. I would be being economical with the truth if I said that I had volunteered or had wanted to embrace Facebook and Twitter. I am at heart an old fashioned fisheries scientist and have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world of social media.


Bleak with teeth

An initial response to my first ever Trust posting came from Stanley Jefferies which referred to the capture of a fish on the River Aire that he thought was probably a smelt. Like a big kid, I was actually excited that someone out there had actually bothered to take the trouble to read my ramblings. I was more astonished still to receive positive feedback. Maybe these new-fangled ways of communicating did actually work after all!

I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of the smelt, Osmerus eperlanus, was somewhat limited. Terry Mansbridge had mentioned catching a couple once on the lower Lee, and described them as ‘bleak with teeth'. Smelt, like the salmon, are what scientists refer to as anadromous. In other words they spend much of their life in salty water conditions but then enter freshwater to spawn in the spring.

Cucumber smell

I was working in the fisheries team at Anglian Water back in the mid-1980s when I first encountered the silvery smelt with a proper old fashioned very distinctive cucumber smell. Although I cannot be absolutely certain of the precise locations, I am fairly confident that we had caught smelt in seine netting surveys on the Great Ouse Relief Channel, Old West River, as well as in trawling surveys on the Hundred Foot drain. I wonder if my old pals Martin Stark and Paul Wilkanowski can remember?

Historic commercial fishery

As was the case with the shad (see also my shad blog) there were, in times gone by, commercial smelt fisheries in many estuaries throughout the UK. They were eaten as whitebait and no doubt any excess used as fertilizer. Deep in my filing system I found an English Nature report written by renowned fisheries scientist Peter Maitland.

Peter describes the pre-industrial revolution distribution of the smelt from the Tay & Forth in Scotland down the east coast to the Thames Estuary. They were absent or only sporadically present along the southern coast and, much to my surprise, had never been recorded in the Severn estuary. Smelt were however common from the Dee estuary north to the Solway Firth.

Reasons for decline and local extinctions

To the best of my knowledge the smelt is now absent from much of its former range e.g. from the Tay & Forth estuaries southwards to the Tees. As was the case for so many fish, a combination of estuarine pollution, overfishing, habitat loss, destruction of spawning grounds and a loss of access to spawning grounds being disrupted by impassable weirs was just too much for the smelt populations to overcome.

That's what is very exciting about the shad project the Trust is hoping to undertake with various partners on the River Severn and Teme. If we can remove the barriers at the navigational weirs through installation of fish passes, the spawning grounds themselves on both the Severn and the Teme are in favourable condition and there is every chance the population of twaite shad and even cousin allis shad could make a remarkable recovery. What a story that could be, a real legacy for the whole project team.

Smelt and the canal network

Smelt are not a fish that one would associate with the canal network. I know that they are present in Docklands around Canary Wharf which locks into the Thames estuary. Similarly they are to be found in the lower Lee Navigation and connected channels such as the Limehouse Cut. I am wondering whether they might also be present in the Liverpool Docks area.

If anyone has any information on that I would love to hear from them. In Peter Maitland's report, he also mentions smelt being recorded in the lower reaches of the Chesterfield Canal in times gone by. This is not as surprising as it first seems. The Chesterfield joins the tidal Trent and doubtless a major flood or some fish ‘taking the wrong turn' would account for this recording. I am now beginning to wonder if any smelt have ever been recorded in the Fossdyke or Witham.

Modern day commercial smelt fishing

If I had not recently read the Environment Agency's annual fisheries report and, as an England Fisheries Group member, feel obliged to read it from cover to cover, I would have been ignorant of the fact that even today, a small commercial smelt industry exists. Tucked away on page 18 of the annual report is a reference to the EA authorising the use of fyke nets and small traps for the exploitation of smelt in Yorkshire & East Anglia.

In 2014, 11 tonnes was the reported catch compared to just over 14 tonnes in 2013. Best I know, little if any of the annual catch is used for human consumption, rather the fish are sold as deadbaits for the angling industry. Providing the data exists to ensure that the fishery is being sustainably cropped, then commercial exploitation of fish stocks is a good and proper thing to do. History, of course, is littered with examples of mankind placing short term profitability over long term sustainability. Let's hope that doesn't happen with the smelt.

Last Edited: 15 March 2016

photo of a location on the canals
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