Maine Seafood Guide – Smelt
Rainbow smelt Osmerus mordax
The rainbow smelt is a small fish that lives in estuaries and offshore waters, and spawns in shallow freshwater streams each spring. The species’ historical range is from Chesapeake Bay to Labrador, but has contracted since the 1950s. Sea-run smelt are now found only in waters north of Long Island Sound.
Year-round, with peak in winter and spring.
Recent Maine DMR surveys have shown that smelt populations are declining in many portions of Maine. In order to allow Maine’s smelt fishery to recover from a decline in abundance in the southern half of the coast, the Maine Department of Marine Resources closed the spring smelt fishery from Stonington to the New Hampshire border, beginning March 14, 2014. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the rainbow smelt as a federal Species of Concern in 2004. View the 2019 smelting regulations from the Department of Marine Resources.
In Maine, rainbow smelt are harvested in three distinct fisheries. During the spring months, as these anadromous fish move into freshwater streams to spawn, fishermen harvest them with hand-held dip nets. A commercial fishery operating on rivers in Washington County uses bag nets and gillnets. The fall season supports a riverine and coastal bay hook and line fishery. In winter, anglers fish for smelt through ice on tidal rivers.
Rainbow smelt are a low-fat, low-calorie, low-mercury source of vitamin B12, selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. Rainbow smelt should not be eaten raw due to the possible presence of parasites.
Fresh smelt has a bright, pale silvery green color and a scent reminiscent of cucumber or watermelon. Smelts can be fried whole, broiled, or pickled.
- Learn more about smelt research and restoration efforts.
- Maine Department of Marine Resources smelt page.
- NOAA Fisheries smelt page.