Thunder Bay

Smelt from Lake Superior sought by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources an Forestry is seeking smelt from the Canadian side of Lake Superior for a new study.

The silvery fish will be tested for contaminants like PFAS, or 'forever chemicals'

These buckets of smelt were caught by South Gillies resident Mark Deans, in Thunder Bay's Current River. (submitted by Mark Deans)

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) wants your smelt.

Well, at least some of them.

The OMNRF is seeking smelt from the Canadian side of Lake Superior for a new study, to look at the presence of 'forever chemicals' or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals.

PFAS chemicals are man-made substances, used in consumer and industrial products, They do not break down in the environment, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The MNRF is asking smelt anglers to fill a Ziploc bag with 40 to 60 of the silvery fish, from any part of the shore of Lake Superior, and donate them for study. 

Fritz Fischer, an assessment supervisor with the Upper Great Lakes Management Unit, of the MNRF, said the data obtained from the smelt will help set consumption guidelines.  

"This spring, it seemed like a unique opportunity to involve the public in the collection of fish that can be tested to allow us to figure out what our recommended intake of smelt should be," he said.

"Smelt are probably the only fish anglers might have a few extra of at the end of a successful fishing trip. And in this case, the MECP is actually looking for the whole smelt.There's no special processing required."

COVID restrictions mean that anglers who want to participate, will have to hold onto their fish a little longer.

"At the moment, especially because of the limitations due to the stay at home order and COVID protocols, what we would ask for at this time is just that anglers collect a bag of smelt," said Fischer. "Then just put them in the freezer and contact us and then we will arrange to pick them up."

Fischer said the smelt being collected will ultimately go to the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP). He said that ministry usually gives the MNRF a list of fish that they need from the various zones around Lake Superior.

Fischer said if those fish are found in the MNRF surveys, they process them, freeze them and ship them in a cooler as quickly as possible to southern Ontario for analysis. Fischer said recent news out of the U.S. about consumption advisories around rainbow smelt has sparked interest in smelt and Lake Superior.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is looking for samples of smelt caught along the shore of Lake Superior, like this rainbow smelt. (Bill Steer)

This past March, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a warning that PFAS chemicals were found in smelt collected from Lake Superior near the Apostle Islands in 2019. The state of Wisconsin also found smelt with high PFAS.

PFAS chemicals are associated with reduced fertility, thyroid disease and liver damage.

Smelt are not native to Lake Superior, but were introduced and have naturalized to the environment. Each spring the smelt run up creeks and rivers in large numbers, with anglers then netting the fish in the evening and at night.

Fischer said smelt anglers should write a note, in pencil, including where the smelt were caught, the date, plus the number of smelt and include it in the ziploc bag. The name of the sampler is optional. The label should be flat and visible so it can be read through the bag.

Fisher said they are seeking smelt from any tributary between the Pigeon River and Sault Ste. Marie.

Anglers who are interested in taking part in the project can contact Kyle Stratton, the Aquatic Ecologist Intern for the Upper Great Lakes Management Unit, and project lead here.