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Friday, February 3, 2017

A scientific artist supports our old friend, the smelt

(Photo courtesy Karen Talbot Art Gallery)
Ah, Candlemas! My husband likes to observe it by reminding me that the annual Columbia Falls Smelt Fry is just around the corner. We know smelts from growing up along the (freshwater) Great Lakes, but they were also once an important food fish here on (saltwater) Penobscot Bay. The Pleasant River supports the last viable commercial smelt fishery on the coast. They have been netting smelt here since before the American Revolution.

I myself observed Candlemas by going to see Native Sea-Run Fishes of Maine at the Karen Talbot Art Gallery. I first met Karen at the opening of her gallery in 2013, after her move to Rockport from Laguna Beach, CA. Her fish paintings are meticulously researched and crafted, and very collectable. 

Talbot is a meticulous illustrator. Here are some of her research notes for the project.(Photo courtesy Karen Talbot Art Gallery)

Native Sea-Run Fishes of Maine features original paintings she created for the 2017 Maine Sea Grant Calendar. This calendar is produced every two years by the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine, in partnership with  NOAA Fisheries Service and the Nature Conservancy in Maine.

Coincidentally, February’s Calendar Girl is our old pal, the Rainbow Smelt.

I’ve always wondered at the ability of smelts, salmon and alewives to survive happily in both the ocean and freshwater lakes. It turns out that they’re diadromous, meaning that in the natural way of things they spend part of their lives in fresh water and part in salt water. (Those species hanging out full-time in the Great Lakes got there through human intervention.)

Historically, these diadromous fishes were essential to feeding the people of the North Atlantic. Today many of them are in trouble, because their river and estuary habitats have been so manipulated by human beings. We may lament the loss of Maine paper mills, but their dams contributed greatly to the decline of these fish.

Pages from the calendar. (Photo courtesy Karen Talbot Art Gallery)
Native Sea-Run Fishes of Maine consists of paintings of twelve of these species: sea lamprey, shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, alewife, Atlantic salmon, brook trout, rainbow smelt, American eel, Atlantic tomcod, striped bass, blueback herring, and American shad. The paintings hang together as a reminder that to preserve them, we must treat them as a group, since species-by-species intervention hasn’t worked.

Not only do humans like to eat diadromous fish, so do cod. Cod was once an important resource for Penobscot Bay fishermen. While we all know stories of intrepid fishermen going to the Grand Banks for their haul, most cod was taken within 30 miles from shore. As development affected the populations of diadromous fishes, cod moved further offshore in search of food. By the 1870s naturalist Spencer Baird had already noted the relationship between the decline of diadromous fish and the loss of cod in the nearshore area. It’s nearly 150 years later and we haven’t solved the problem.

On that note, a portion of the proceeds from Talbot’s original paintings and prints go to the Nature Conservancy in Maine to benefit habitat restoration efforts in the Penobscot River and Bay watershed.

For more information about Native Sea-Run Fishes of Maine, contact Karen Talbot here.

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