March, 2018 is an exciting time in the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere because we will have two full moons, one on March 1 and another on March 31.
The second full Moon is called the “Maple Moon,” as this is around the time that the sap of sugar maples really starts to flow. In the Mi’kmaw calendar, March is maple sugar time, or “Si’ko’ku’s.”
During this early spring time, many things are changing in the biosphere: birds are returning from migrations; some animals are mating to later give birth during warmer spring days; and recreational fishers around the Bras d’Or estuary are excited because smelt are moving around the shallow waters.
In the Mi’kmaw language, the names of many things relate to their use, their habitat or their role in natural cycles. The name “Kaqpesaq” translates to “when the snow has finished” and it relates to when these energetic smelt move into the freshwater to spawn.
Tom Johnson (Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife and a member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association board) remembers a time when he was young. The spawning schools of smelts would appear in streams outside Eskasoni, usually in late March or early April. People would line the banks of the streams with flashlights and torches, and catch enough for a family meal. The fish were caught with home-made spears, nets or their bare hands. Many people made the spring trip to the stream every year over a very long lifetime and have compelling stories about years of plenty and of scarcity.
This year is shaping up to be a good one to catch smelts in the Bras d’Or estuary, according to Skyler Jeddore, a biosphere resident who spends many of his waking hours fishing. He catches smelt in the shallow bays using a standard-issue fishing rod and live bait with sardine or oatmeal chum to attract them.
Smelt (Osmerus mordax) is an inshore species which lives in coastal waters from Virginia to southern Labrador and moves into freshwater to spawn. In the biosphere, this occurs around the time that the snow leaves, as their Mi’kmaw name indicates. However, they can move into the Bras d’Or estuary as early as November, feasting on the silverside minnows and sand shrimp until the spawning run into the rivers in March or April.
They spawn at night and each female can release up to 60,000 eggs! The eggs sink to the bottom and become attached to everything. Hatching occurs from eight to 63 days later as a function of temperature and the baby smelt (fry) are carried back to the Bras d’Or estuary in the currents. The size of the smelt runs has varied from year-to-year but long-time residents of the biosphere say that overall numbers have declined.
In May and June of 1996, a survey of fish larvae in the Bras d’Or estuary was conducted by the Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and smelt fry were one of the four most abundant species (from Lambert, 2002). The other three were four-beard rockling, winter flounder and cod. If those tows were repeated in 2018, we would expect different results considering the current scarcity of cod.
So, how does the novice know whether the fish that she caught is a smelt? There are other Bras d’Or fish that may be confused with the smelt but its distinguishing feature is the short, flap-like adipose fin which is mostly free of the body. Small smelt may be confused with the abundant silverside minnow. However, the mouth of the silverside is very small and a black pencil-line extends along the side above the silver band that gives this fish its charming name.
Maybe the fish that you caught is a herring. Herring do not have that little flapping adipose fin. Possibly you have a capelin. If you aren’t really sure, check out the fish’s tongue. Smelt have little teeth on the tongue whereas none of the smelt look-alikes possess such a growth.
Smelt are a significant link in the Bras d’Or estuary food chain. They are voracious predators, often capturing silverside minnows that are half their size. However, they are also a forage fish, a significant food source for animals further up the food chain such as salmon, seals, mergansers and bald eagles. Let’s not forget the two-legged residents of the biosphere. That gourmet meal of fresh fried smelts at this time of the year can’t be beat (according to some locals).
Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist and a board member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association. Thanks to Tom Johnson and Skyler Jeddore who contributed to this month’s column. For more information about the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association, please visit http://blbra.ca/ or check out our Facebook page.