When the snow has fin­ished

In the Bras d'or Lake Bio­sphere Re­serve

The Victoria Standard - - Environment - AN­NAMARIE HATCHER

March 2018 is an ex­cit­ing time in the Bras d’or Lake Bio­sphere be­cause we will have two full moons, one was on March 1 and an­other will hap­pen on the last day of the month. 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. 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 Bras d’or Lake Bio­sphere Re­serve As­so­ci­a­tion board) re­mem­bers smelt from his youth. The spawn­ing schools of smelts would ap­pear in streams out­side the Eska­soni re­serve, 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 homemade spears, nets or 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 be­tween 8 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 run varies 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. In this sur­vey, smelt fry were one of the four most abun­dant species (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. And 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. For more in­for­ma­tion about the Bras d’or Lake Bio­sphere Re­serve As­so­ci­a­tion, please visit http://blbra.ca.

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