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Smelts are a family of small fish, Osmeridae, found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They are also known as freshwater smelts or typical smelts to distinguish them from the related Argentinidae, Bathylagidae, and Retropinnidae.
Some smelt species are common in the North American Great Lakes, and in the lakes and seas of the northern part of Europe, where they run in large shoals along the saltwater coastline during spring migration to their spawning streams. In some western parts of the United States, smelt populations have greatly declined in recent decades, leading to their protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Delta smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus, found in the Sacramento Delta of California, and the Columbia River smelt, Eulachon, are both protected from harvest.
Some species of smelt are among the few fish that sportsmen have been allowed to net, using hand-held dip nets, either along the coastline or in streams. Some sportsmen also ice fish for smelt. Smelt are often fried and eaten whole.
Like salmon, many species are anadromous, living most of their lives in the sea, but traveling into fresh water to breed. However, a few exceptions, such as the surf smelt, spend their entire lives at sea.
|Cladogram of the Osmeridae family. Salangidae and Plecoglossus might be sister clades to the osmerid genera.|
In the Canadian provinces and U.S. states around the Great Lakes, "smelt dipping" is a common group sport in the early spring and when stream waters reach around 4°C, (40–42°F). Fish are spotted using a flashlight or headlamp and scooped out of the water using a dip net made of nylon or metal mesh. The smelt are cleaned by removing the head and the entrails. Fins, scales, and bones of all but the largest of smelts are cooked without removal.
On the Maine coast, smelts were also a sign of spring, with the run of these small fish up tiny tidal estuaries. Many of these streams were narrow enough for a person to straddle and get a good catch of smelt by dipping a bucket.
Smelts have been traditionally an important winter catch in the saltwater mouths of rivers in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Fishermen would go to customary locations over the ice using horses and sleighs. Smelt taken out of the cold saltwater were much preferred to those taken in warm water. The smelt did not command a high price on the market, but provided a useful supplemental income in times when wants were much less. The smelts were "flash frozen" simply by leaving them on the ice and then sold to fish buyers who came down the rivers. They were also a winter meal. They were gutted, heads and tails removed, rinsed in cold water then dipped in flour mixed with salt and pepper and fried in butter. Served with boiled potatoes and pickled beets, they were an addition to winter fare. They are still considered traditional Acadian fare.
Smelt is popular in Japan, as the species Sprinchus lanceolatus, and is generally served grilled, called shishamo, especially when full of eggs.
In the city of Inje, South Korea, (Gangwan-do Province), the Ice Fish Festival is held annually from January 30 to February 2 on Soyang Lake coinciding with the smelt's yearly run into fresh water to breed. They are locally known as bing-o and typically eaten alive or deep fried.
In Finland, the province of Paltamo has yearly Norssikarnevaali festivals in middle of May.
In 1956, the Chamber of Commerce in Kelso, Washington, declared Kelso, located on the Cowlitz River, as the "Smelt Capital of the World". They erected billboards proclaiming this, and held festivals for the annual smelt runs, until the runs dried up.
Lithuania celebrates an annual weekend smelt festival in Palanga "Palangos Stinta" every early January.
- Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2012). "Osmeridae" in FishBase. February 2012 version.
- McDowell, Robert M. (1998). Paxton, J.R. & Eschmeyer, W.N., ed. Encyclopedia of Fishes. San Diego: Academic Press. p. 116. ISBN 0-12-547665-5.
- Molecular resolution of the systematics of a problematic group of fishes (Teleostei: Osmeridae) and evidence for morphological homoplasy, Katriina L. Ilves , Eric B. Taylor, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50 (2009) 163–178. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2008.10.021
- Hinrichsen, Richard A (1998) "The Ghost Run of the Cowlitz" Cowlitz Historical Quarterly, 40 (2): 5–21.