Lake Superior smelting traditions continue, despite new pollution concerns

Smelt is a small, slender fish, measuring only six to nine inches in length – but it has a large and loyal following.

“The number one fish in my book,” said Johnny Thaw one night last week on the sandy beach at Duluth’s Park Point along Lake Superior.

Thaw drove from St. Paul with his wife, uncle, and cousin in the annual Brother-in-law’s race. For two weeks in the spring, every night after sunset, thousands of tiny silverfish swim ashore to spawn, and hordes of fishermen flock to beaches and streams to collect them in nets.

The scent was made inside a cooler for Johnny Thao of St. Paul on May 4 as seen as he was fishing for smelting along Park Point on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Thao has made this pilgrimage to the North every spring for the past fifteen years–half his life–because he’s just crazy about the smell. Fry them with the skin still. He said they taste great when they come out of the big lake. A kind of french fries.

He said, “I cut the head off and then you remove all the guts with it and then you rinse it quick, deep fry it. You’re golden.”

But you have to pick up a lot of them to make a meal. This is fairly easy at this time of year, when, after dark, the large schools swim in the warm waters near the shore and in streams that feed the lake to spawn.

Instead of holding them with a rod and reel, both Thaw and his uncle hold one end of a 25-foot fishing net.

“You go in there, one person on each side. Pull the net and walk slowly back, walk slowly,” he explains.

When they reached the shore, they put the net on the shore. It is filled with dozens of replete scents.

“Okay, first scent of 2022! Cheer up!” Thao cried.

Then, in a stomach-flapping tradition usually reserved for newbie meltdowners, Thao bites the head off the scent and spit it away.

Groups of people line the coast with lanterns, portable heaters, and empty coolers they hope to fill with fish. They wear waders to stay warm in the lagoon’s sweltering 40-degree waters.

Nets and other supplies were placed on the sand next to the water.

Molten gear awaits fishing night on May 4th along Park Point in Duluth. Legions of die-hard fishermen are planning once again to flock to the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth this spring for their annual spring run, when thousands of small, invasive fish congregate along the shore to spawn.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Julie Yang, who drove the Twins with her husband, said people come for the fish, the camaraderie and the experience.

“It’s beautiful here at night, listening to the waves crash. Just catching fish in the middle of the night. I don’t know, there’s just something weird about it, but it’s fun.”

There’s a festive atmosphere at Duluth every spring when the scent kicks in, even an annual parade to celebrate their arrival. But it wasn’t what it was in the sixties and seventies.

“People were coming in from all over the Midwest to fill up vans full of odor,” said Don Schreiner, a Minnesota sea-grant fishing specialist at the University of Minnesota.

He says at the time the smell was so intense you didn’t even have to get wet. You can just dip a net in the water and take it out. He said people fill up trash cans, throw them in the back of a truck, and go back to fill their cans again. “It was crazy.”

The number of smelters declined in the 1980s, when large predatory fish, especially lake trout, rebounded in Lake Superior. State officials also stocked the lake with salmon, which preyed on smaller fish.

Today, enough scent remains to preserve this long-standing tradition. But now, there is a new threat.

Headlight that glows in the dark.

A scent hunter’s headlight illuminates the waters off the shore of Lake Superior on May 4 along Park Point in Duluth.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

High levels of PFOS – one of a related group of chemicals known collectively as PFAS, or “forever chemicals” – were found in smelter samples sampled along the southern shore of Lake Superior, near the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin and along Michigan’s upper coast.

These chemicals, which have been widely used in a variety of products from clothing to cookware, do not degrade in the environment. They have been linked to cancer and other health issues.

“It seems that the smell, for some reason, is accumulating more of this chemical than other fish species we’ve looked at so far,” Schreiner said.

The states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota have issued warnings about consuming the Lake Superior scent.

But PFOS was not found at high levels in larger fish, such as lake trout, that eat the smell. This is different from pollutants such as mercury that tend to go up the food chain.

“Rainbow molten is a relatively short-lived species. They don’t have a long life in which contaminants accumulate. So, there is a bit of a mystery about how and where they are exposed to these chemicals, and then accumulate them in the environment,” said Jim Kelly, director of environmental monitoring and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Health.

Researchers have observed this phenomenon in other lakes and rivers in Minnesota as well. The highest levels of PFOS are often found in panoramic fish, not predatory fish like walleye or northern pike, Kelly said.

“It’s definitely a function of how those chemicals behave,” Kelly said. “And potentially, where they are concentrated within the food chain. They might just concentrate in the microorganisms or things that smell eat them.”

Minnesota officials are collecting more samples from the smelt this spring for further testing.

Meanwhile, health officials advise smelters to eat no more than one serving per month of small silverfish.

At Duluth’s Park Point, many smelters have heard the warning. But a few of them seemed overly concerned.

Lou Xiong of Saint Paul said, “I’m not too worried about it, it’s a big lake. It’s a real clean lake. No one got sick or anything I know of.”

Vee Sar, who runs the Lake Superior Smelting Community on Facebook, said he also hadn’t heard of many of the concerns among smelters. Most of them eat only a few meals throughout the year, he said, within government consumption guidelines.

Sarr, who first melted in the late 1970s when he was camping with his father in Duluth, says it takes a lot of work now to fill coolers with scent.

However, he said interest is growing. He said hundreds of new members joined the in-laws group on Facebook this spring.

“It’s just friendship and being among friends, getting to know new people, for something we all have in common – our passion for being outdoors.”

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