Sweet smelt success on the Tyne

It may be best-known for its salmon, but a much more elusive fish has been found in the River Tyne.

The Tyne is the best salmon river in England and Wales, as well as a developing coarse fishery, but also is home to smelt, a once-abundant species which now is locally rare.

Officers from the Environment Agency carried out a one-off survey of the Tyne estuary to see if the elusive smelt was still present and breeding in the River Tyne.

New legislation in the Marine Bill is likely to extend the Environment Agency’s duty to protect smelt, so fisheries officers wanted to determine if the species was still present in the River Tyne.

A variety of different nets were deployed at Newburn in the Tyne estuary and amongst numbers of young salmon, sea trout and dace, eight smelt were caught. All of the fish were in breeding condition and confirmed the continued presence of this striking fish.

Environment Agency fisheries technical specialist Phil Rippon said: “We were delighted to record eight specimen smelt in the survey nets, we knew that smelt has been recorded occasionally by anglers in the 1970s and 1980s but we were unsure whether a breeding population still existed.

“The smelt is an unusual fish, sleek and salmon-like in appearance, with a characteristic smell of cucumber.

“The smelt is a small fish rarely exceeding 30cm in length and usually migrates into freshwater to spawn between February and May.

“They are known to spawn at the head of the tide usually at the first sets of rapids. The eggs are heavier than water and very sticky, settling on weed and stones. A large female may lay up to 40,000 eggs.”

Smelt have been recorded previously in the Tyne by anglers fishing for coarse fish. Local angler and long-time fish recorder David Hall, of Matfen, who has been reporting and collating information on smelt since the 1980s, said: “It’s great news that smelt are still in the River Tyne.

“Local anglers have been recording occasional catches for many years but now the Environment Agency has confirmed that the fish are still present and breeding within the river.”

Any anglers catching smelt on the Tyne are asked to carefully return the fish to the water and report their catch to the Environment Agency by emailing Robert.Stephenson@environment-agency.gov.uk