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Author Topic: IMEP #98 Part 1 - Will Smelt Ever Again Return to Connecticut?  (Read 236 times)
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« on: October 15, 2021, 10:05:48 AM »

IMEP #98 - Part 1
Will Smelt Ever Again Return to Connecticut?
“Understanding Science Through History”
Smelt Makes a Comeback With Cold of the 1950’s
Bitter Winters Bring Record Catches of Shad and Bay Scallops in 1958
Extreme Cold in the 1870’s Benefitted the Ice Fish
Viewpoint of Tim Visel
No other agency or organization
October 2019 – The Sound School, New Haven, CT
This is a delayed report
Thank you, The Blue Crab Forum™ for supporting Sound School Newsletters
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A Note from Tim Visel
I started looking into smelt in the middle 1980’s.  I was curious as to why such a popular fish had completely vanished it seemed from Connecticut waters, but not so in Maine?

After many years, I started to find additional historical documents that included references to Connecticut smelt (many of them appear as appendices) and its place in market (catch) as fisheries.

I was curious about the Maine smelt fishery and in 2016 stopped in to see an old friend and university colleague, Sam Chapman, in Waldoboro, Maine.
For many years, Sam and his family ran one of the largest shad hatcheries and had published many papers about shad and culturing them.  I had visited the hatchery years before and mentioned an interest in smelt. 

While visiting, Sam showed me a smelt jig or board, a pole (some are planks) where several lines hung from them, in an ice shack a small building in which ice fishing occurred.  These buildings were placed on the ice once thick enough.  These buildings were dragged onto thick ice and 4-foot slots cut into the ice.  These multi long jigs allowed lines to be fished at different depths.  This was truly an “ice” fishing event and according to Sam much fun.
I have never experienced Connecticut smelt fishing as described by Sam; few Connecticut residents have.  But smelt were here when it was colder and what was called the “ice fish.”

The “ice fish” smelt was the first in the series of the herrings to return to New England streams each spring.  Small creeks and coves were the spawning habitats – they don’t use ladders and spawn at the fresh/salt water interface.  Native Americans must have seen these oil rich fish as a relief to long winters constructing basket traps and rock weirs to catch them.  Smelt returned to shallow waters to spawn under the ice.  They seek out sandy locations or edges in which to lay eggs which take 15 to 30 days to hatch depending upon water temperature.  Smelt need waters extremely cold and were most abundant February to early May.  By June most reports mention smelt moving to deeper waters and prefer water temperatures below 56oF. 

Growing up in Madison, I caught only a few smelt in a small seine net by Tom’s Creek in Madison, CT.  That was in the late 1960’s. I have not seen any myself for decades except my son Willard caught one at West Wharf at Madison, CT in 2003-2004.  We were snapper blue fishing at that time.  What is clear from the historical literature – catch records and climate reports – smelt are here when the waters were very cold.  The use of small mesh haul seines were largely outlawed by 1929, so smelt catches occurred in fewer areas and were complicated by inland jurisdiction lines which further isolated the fish from any directed fisheries. For example, Normandeau Associates conducted otter (bottom) trawl surveys of New Haven Harbor in the early 1970’s reported over 1,000 smelt caught per tow.  These catches quickly declined in the late 1970’s.  Isolated catches continue to be reported in trawl net surveys but a commercial haul seine fishery is prohibited and recreational catch seasons are closed.  Smelt may return but no one today is looking for them.

Turn of the century commercial fisheries used gear types that are prohibited today.  Its therefore difficult to determine abundance when there are no legal ways to catch them.  They don’t usually move above fish lifts, so the only practical way to see if they have returned is to seine for them just as the ice leaves the shore.  To accomplish this, a monitoring program using traditional fishing gear (small mesh) is needed in many coves during February to March – my view Tim Visel.   

Many Connecticut residents today have never seen the rainbow smelt, Osmerus mordax, a fish that has been part of Connecticut’s fisheries history.  They also have not perhaps experienced the bitter cold of smelt fishing, also a part of its habitat fishery.  As Philo Beers of Cheshire was reporting on the habitat failure of valley apple tree orchards throughout Connecticut during the winter of 1872-73 when as temperatures then dropped to 35oF below zero.  Some fisheries thrived in this bitter cold such as bay scallops.  However, orchards froze and this extreme cold ruined fruit trees especially in valleys by the hundreds where this cold air persisted for weeks.  Apple trees surprisingly planted on hill tops largely survived.  This was the time of smelt, which centuries before Native Americans had termed the “ice fish.”  It is a good name as the first smelt fishing occurred under ice.

New England residents in the 1870’s then feared a return of the Ice Age – ice blocked ports, killed cattle, and made just daily life a struggle that is hard to compare to today’s climate.  But the cold had its benefits to fisheries.  Smelt choked the Pawcatuck River, the Old Saybrook trap net fishers would break all records for shad and western Connecticut especially, the shore surrounding Greenwich contained vast bay scallop beds, some were miles long.  The cold, it seems, had its friends and one of those was the rainbow smelt.  It had an edge over its more warm water herrings, it can live in very cold water.  It can produce a protein that acts as an “anti-freeze” (Enterline and Chase, 2012) to keep cell walls flexible.  Certainly, a fish that can produce a natural “anti-freeze” would provide a habitat edge competition wise over those who did not have a similar cold water capacity.  Yet, it seems after reviewing its fishery history, its presence may have occurred here only at the coldest of times.

During the last quarter century, efforts were begun to restore energy pathways to rivers and streams – i.e., dam removal.  This was done to restore access to fish deprived of historical spawning habitats.  Perhaps the first barriers to some of these habitats were beaver dams.  They would tend to gather flows and, at times, moderate energy.  These dams created slow waters and may have increased spawning habitat.  Man-made dams were different; they were not as porous as beaver dams and collected soils and organic matter behind them.  In other areas, impounding water not only trapped “legacy sediments” but also tended to warm it, creating at times a type of thermal “pollution.”  Smelt prefer colder water, therefore warm periods combined with less rainfall (less energy) cause smelt habitats to fail.  Energy is needed and several critical life stage events; energy (rainfall) ensures enough flow of oxygen in water and aerating benthic spawning sand and gravels.  Clean washed sands and gravel are critical to developing eggs (keeping them fungus-free).  Energy (flow) helps keep water saturated with oxygen – a natural aeration process (See Living Stream Aquarium).  Energy (flow) also helps steams and rivers move organics downstream, a self-clearing process of moving solids (organic matter and soil particles) to delta areas.  Many dams have generations of “legacy” sediments behind them that may discharge toxic chemicals in high heat.  If strong enough a chemical “block” may develop.

Temperature is also significant.  Smelt do better in periods of intense cold and contain a natural ability to live in cold water that would kill other species; they produce a blood serum antifreeze.  Smelt return as the first ice thaws, reducing any sulfide or ammonia – chlorine chemical blocks while high oxygen keeps ammonia oxidized to nitrate, a far less toxic nitrogen compound.  In heat, smelt compete with other species for habitat space and are subject to sulfides from organic bacterial composting and potential low oxygen levels – fish kills. 

Maine has an interesting smelt habitat history as it once utilized rivers to move forestry waste, pulp and sawdust that purged sulfide (the rotten egg smell) in high heat.  The fisheries and environmental literature is filled with these accounts - the sulfide smells from such rivers was so intense at times to cause people to shut house windows and flee river banks.  Readers are encouraged to review the biological parameters of the Saprobien System referred to as the organic wellness system developed over a century ago.  Sulfide formation is greatly enhanced in heat (black water) than in cold.  Smelt cannot tolerate acid waters and likes the brackish environments as seawater is more alkaline.  This makes its habitats somewhat more tolerant of tannins and sulfuric acid discharges in salt water. 

Although overfishing and pollution are frequently mentioned as reasons for smelt declines (chlorine still needs to be better review – my view), many papers miss the fact that Native Americans once termed smelt “the small winter (ice) fish,” or O’Brien (2005) terms  “moamitteaug” (Aquidneck Indian Council Grammatical Studies in the Narragansett Languages, 2nd Edition, Dr. Frank Waabu O’Brien).  The climate connection, frost or ice, is mentioned many times in New England native languages.
Early Fisheries

To the Native Americans, the return of the “ice fish” as the first brooks broke ice must have been a welcome sight.  Here were oil-rich fish returning to shallow streams after a long cold winter.  This fresh fish meal returned to them and basket traps were set along many streams.  Smelt returns earlier than most of the herrings, giving them the first chance to catch the early ice melt.  The waters are ice cold in February and March, and perhaps the highest oxygen saturation times for many streams.  Water cascading over rocks could in fact super oxygenate these streams.  Heat is the enemy of the ice fish and when heat occurs in New England, smelt populations diminish.  An excellent history of the Massachusetts Anadromous Fish Project written by Joe DiCarlo and K. E. Reback (1970) details previous Massachusetts work of Kendall 1927 (See The Rise of Smelt – Will Cooler Waters Return the Ice Fish to Southern New England? Megalops Report #2, posted September 10, 2020, The Blue Crab ForumTM, NE Crabbing Resources thread. Also the report of DiCarlo and Rebeck – 89-304 Anadromous Fish Act Massachusetts Publication #6496 – Project Period February 1, 1967 to June 30th).
The reasons for the decline of present day smelt runs are similar – dam destruction, human development in watersheds, man-made pollution, increased predation, increased sedimentation and overfishing.  The overfishing variable needs to be re-examined as it does not explain fluctuations region-wide and makes fisheries management policies non-consistent.  Pollution also needs to be examined as some runs existed or even have increased in streams with much lower perceived water quality.  The aspect of cool water refuge or climate habitat transitions have been also missed except perhaps for the striped bass.  As warmer waters happened in southern New England (linked to the climate feature known as the NAO), the habitat suitability for striped bass in northern waters increased, especially in the Hudson River associated with the study of the “Westway Project” on the west side of Manhattan Island, during the period 1973-1985.  Here in monitoring studies, researchers surveying an area of the dilapidated Hudson River steamship piers (38th to 42nd Street) found large amounts of small striped bass.  This perplexed those opposing nearly 180 acres of fill over the creosote-soaked pilings, which provided a vertical reef habitat and feeding and growth opportunities.  To the casual observer, this might seem odd.  One did not think of creosote pilings in the Hudson River near one of America’s densely populated cities to be an important area for striped bass.  This, at the time, deeply divided the environmental community as it challenged the concept of barren toxic polluted waters – here stripers preferred the piers few described then as “pristine.”

Some researchers talked about warming of these waters, which may have been the most important factor – climate, not man-made activities.  Few researchers however picked up on this climate impact that perhaps temperature had an important role in habitat, even habitats one would not think as “pure” or “clean.”  Warmer waters with less oxygen would become acidic – something noticed with the decline of striped bass habitats in Chesapeake Bay.  Smelt perhaps had a pH climate link more acute than any other anadromous fish.  One of the few reports to mention this factor is on page 32 under the section titled Rainbow Smelt, Buchsbaum et al., The Decline of Fisheries Resources in New England, 2005, MIT Sea Grant College Program.  A section highlights possible thermal transitions (heat and low flow) small streams declining but larger rivers increasing, perhaps from thermal and pH buffering.

“The deterioration of small coastal tributaries has been shown to reduce spawning potential (Sam Chapman, personal communication).  Surprisingly, runs have shown improvements in some urban rivers, tributaries to Massachusetts Bay, while runs are declining in less urbanized rivers with better water quality.”
As with the Westway Project in the Hudson River, rivers with less than thought optimum water quality and further from Buchsbaum et al. The Decline of Fisheries in New England, MIT Sea Grant College Program, 2005 explores this issue,

“The issue (mentioned above, T. Visel) is unresolved, but may involve other undocumented factors as well, such as the success of Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River striped bass rehabilitation, which has led to the recent large increases in striped bass from those areas feeding in inshore waters and river mouths particularly Charles and Weymouth Fore rivers.”

“Similar declines in interior waters of Massachusetts have been linked to acid precipitation and a resultant decrease in pH (B. Kynard, personal communication)
“… and this may be a factor in anadromous runs of rainbow smelt as well, where low pH levels have been recorded in coastal tributaries (Haines, 1987).  Rainbow smelt do not utilize fish ladders and even modest amounts of woody debris in streams will block (smelt) upstream passage.”
And finally signs of substrate fouling in heat known to increase sulfides in stagnant waters in trout brooks:
“There also has been a noticeable decline in substrate quality in many coastal streams.  Smelt eggs are adhesive and naturally stick to instream rocks, aquatic vegetation and submerged branches.  However in recent years, there have been noticeable declines in aquatic vegetation and increases in algal growth on instream cover (B. Chase, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Salem, MA , personal communication) … The widespread growth of algae may be linked to changes in water quality and water temperature.”

The increases in algal growths, decreases in pH and warming can all be explained by the climate feature of the NAO – phases that have colder temperatures and more rain versus hot dry periods often with droughts.  Small streams (and those subject to street water) could heat up faster, and low dissolved oxygen reduce buffering of sulfide formation.  Finally, low flows (a drought condition) woody debris would collect jam and possibly block runs altogether.
It is important to note that as brook trout declined in Southern New England, smelt also declined – almost exactly.  The Great Heat of the 1890’s would cause Connecticut to term native brook trout to be in a practical way extinct from Connecticut streams.  In response, many New England states imported more heat tolerant trout strains such as brown trout, Salmo trutta, and rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss. 

The impact of heat and low flows upon trout streams was mentioned by H. B. Hynes in 1971, The Biology of Polluted Waters, Toronto Press University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.  Hynes also mentions a tendency for people to immediately think of (blame) human pollution for the observed impact.
From The History of Water Pollution, Hynes 1971, pg. 1:

“Pollution is a word that occurs often in the newspapers and is seldom far long off the tongues of freshwater fishermen; of recent years, it has also come into prominence in the law courts.  According to Wisdom (1956), pollution is legally definable as “the addition of something to water which changes its natural qualities so that the riparian owner does not get the natural water of the stream transmitted to him.”

“This has the appearance of being a clear and concise statement; but what is the natural water of a stream?  And what are its natural qualities?”
This was the question raised during the Westway Highway Project in New York (1973) – what was the habitat quality value of crumbling creosote-soaked piers of New York City to striped bass when that habitat was not natural?  (This issue deeply divided both environmentalists and fishers from 1974 to 1985.  Westway developers had allocated $50 million for habitat mitigation and artificial reef structures).  How could fish such as the striped bass prefer or live next to structures once soaked in coal tar in an urban area of incredible human density?

The pollution aspect continues to perplex those wishing to restore smelt and other anadromous runs, runs of alewife and shad peaked in the late 1950’s, a period of time not known for pollution control or fishway construction, but it was during a period of cold and larger spring snow melts.  Flows in New England rivers were strong and colder water contains more oxygen.  Water quality is more important to smelt as they lack the power to successfully use most fishways – ladders.  They spawn in brackish water with clean gravel and clean submerged vegetation with oxygen and not in fungus/sulfide bottoms.  Therefore, heat and the presence of organic matter are factors, including human inputs of forestry and sewage but also natural conditions as well related to climate.  This would include the buildup of organic matter (brush and leaves) (natural) during periods of low flow, and hot summers could not only physically obstruct “block” small streams but could, by way of bacteria reduction (composting chemistry), create chemical “sulfide” blocks. 

Water chemistry unseen by us but perhaps signaled to fish unsafe or contaminated water.  In the 1980’s during the University of Connecticut Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program fishing gear workshops, fishers commented that large smelt runs in Groton, Stonington and Greenwich, also Cos Cob section of Greenwich, CT 1960’s stopped the same year that sewage treatment plants in Connecticut were ordered to chlorinate effluent year-round and not just during the summer, a possible man-made “chlorine block” (See The Historical Decline of the Rainbow Smelt “Osmerus mordax” in Connecticut’s Coastal Waters by Timothy C. Visel and Thomas Savoy, 1989).
In the 1980’s, referencing the above paper we were reviewing the impacts of chlorine with increasing temperatures.  Following is a segment from a conference R. L. Jolley editor titled Proceedings of the Conference on the Environmental Impact of Water Chlorination held at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, October 22, 1975, 443 pgs. (1975).  The citation is Brooks, A. S. and G. C. Seegert, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Center for Great Lake Studies, Milwaukee, MI, pg. 1-30 – “The Toxicity of Chlorine to Freshwater Organisms Under Varying Environmental Conditions” is found this segment:

“Studies that have been conducted under a myriad of environmental conditions in attempts to quantify the toxicity of chlorine to freshwater organisms were reviewed.  A synthesized view of the toxicity of chlorine to freshwater biota is presented.  The response of freshwater organisms to chlorine is species-dependent.  The life stage and size of the organism must be considered in evaluating chlorine toxicity.  The period of time that an organism is exposed to chlorine and the concentration of chlorine are critical in determining the final response of that organism.  The effect of temperature on the response of freshwater organisms to chlorine appears to be species-dependent and also dependent upon the specific range of temperature concerned.  A general trend of increasing sensitivity of fish to chlorine at higher temperatures was indicated.”
Other researchers in the 1970’s did examine smelt and trout life functions to chlorine.  Brooks and Seegert (1977) reported that “fish were more sensitive to chlorine at elevated temperatures – smelt LC 50 (lethal concentration 50 percent die) was 1.27 mg/L at 10oC or 50oF.  They reported a stunning fact that this was only 30 minutes of exposure and that for alewife and yellow perch toxicity for these two species increased 10 times from 10oC (50oF) to 30oC (86oF).  Allen et al. (1946) reported toxicity to trout.  Most died within 64 minutes and sewage with high acid content trout died within 14 minutes.  Basch (1971) noted that toxicity to trout (rainbow) could be found one-half mile downstream from a sewage outfall and (1971) in another paper found toxic levels eight-tenths of a mile downstream were evident.  Therefore, a sewage outfall that was chlorinated at a river mouth could chemically “block” an entire run more effectively than any dam and not apparent to anyone except in a sudden dramatic smelt run end, which was apparently observed in Greenwich and other rivers from 1965 to 1969.

H. B. N. Hynes mentions a possible climate related sulfide block that occurs naturally with organic material and a tendency to seek man-made reasons other than natural.  Increasing temperature creates low oxygen and sulfide blocks as well.  From Chapter 1: The History of Water Pollution: is found this segment – pg. 1.
“Even “natural” streams may show the characteristic signs of pollution.  In densely wooded regions, the autumn leaf fall may add so much organic matter to water that fish are asphyxiated … In such places, the water is murky and smells foul when disturbed, and the decaying leaves near the surface are covered with a coat of sewage fungus.”
“These conditions occurring near a cesspool or a town dump would be immediately attributed to gross pollution by human agency.  These is little doubt, however, that they have occurred in some places in every age since the invasion of the land surface by plants”
And further on pg. 69,

“We return here to the great difficulty of defining pollution, and we must accept the fact that at least some man-made alterations to rivers closely resemble changes which in other rivers occur quite naturally.”

Heat in New England reduces smelt runs – low flows make it harder for fish to reach suitable habitat, any organics, trapped leaves get held in areas of brush accumulation, and sulfide formation (black leaves) can release toxic compounds and drive oxygen levels to below lethal limits.

When the New England climate changed, the smelt runs in Southern New England retreated to the cooler waters of Maine.  During the colder 1870’s, New Jersey to the south had a smelt run, even some rivers further south.  As the waters warmed in the 1880’s, smelt runs “gave out” in southern areas first, proceeding northward as southern waters warmed.  It is thought that smelt provided an important role in Native American fisheries.  The smelt is rich in oils and calories.  Smoked or dried, smelt in fact contained so much oil that they could support a flame (See references of Eulachon (west coast) when smoked could support a flame).

I recall Alfred Wilcox (of Wilcox Marine Supply Stonington, CT) telling me about under running ice with gill nets for smelt in the Pawtucket River.  A line was tied to a float or pole.  When ice formed in the brackish zone, the lines were cut free and used to haul a very small gill net mesh under the ice.  After a period of time, the net was hauled out and ropes set back into the bottom.  In 1978 or 1979, Mr. Wilcox gave me a section of small mesh linen twine that was coated in wax.  He estimated it was from the 1930’s or 1940’s.  I made a section of this gill net as part of a gill net demonstration workshop series for the University of Connecticut.  It was a fine mesh and only ¾ inch mesh stretch.  These gill nets were small, some only 30 to 40-feet long.  He mentioned the use in small coves where the current was not that strong.  In the US Fisheries of Maine – History and Methods, on page 692, is a mention of smelt gill nets (US Fish Commission, The Fishery Industries of the United States, Section II, Washington, DC (1887)):
“Gill nets – The only form of gill net known to have been used for the capture of smelts in Maine was used in the Kennebec before the introduction of bag nets.  It was a small affaire stretch on a frame about 6 feet square, and set through a hole in the ice.  A great many of these were used in small tributaries of Merrymeeting Bay, and were quite effective while smelts were plenty and large.”

The use of bag nets, a type of seine set between poles, was used in Connecticut in Horseneck Creek, Greenwich, CT and an account is found in Appendix 2: Communication to Sally Harold About Native American Brush Trap Fisheries and the Saugatuck River Smelt Fishery.  This method is described as also using poles in which to set a bag seine, a sock-like net which has graduated mesh sizes in it.  The US Fish Commission report mentions a description of this method on page 691 under the section on Maine’s Rivers titled “The River Fisheries of Maine:”

“Bag nets – The bag net fishery for smelts is of considerable importance, a larger aggregate quantity being caught this way than by any other method except hook and , line.  Its principal seats are the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers, but it is also carried on in the Wescongus, Harington, and Tunk Rivers to a small extent. 
The bag-nets used in different localities vary some, but those of the Penobscot may be taken as the type and will be described in detail.  These nets are plain bags, knit of strong cotton twine, of 1 and one-eighth mesh.  The mouth of the net is rectangular, 25 or 30 feet wide and from 12 to 18 feet deep.  The “trail” of length of the bag is 30 to 35 feet.  The bottom and top commonly taper toward the trail to half their width at the mouth, and the sides taper to a point.  The fixtures to which this net is attached and the mode of attachment vary according to circumstances, the fishing being pursued sometimes in the open water, sometimes in the spaces between the piers of a bridge, and sometimes beneath the ice.

If ice covers the fishing grounds, a very different arrangement must be resorted to.  A narrow hole, as long as the net is wide, is cut in the ice at right angles with the current, and at either end of it is planted, upright, a stout pole something over 40 feet in length, running down 35 feet, more or less, into the water, and second in position by gigs attached to both top and bottom, and anchored in the ice.  Ropes running through blocks draw it up through the ice to be emptied of its fish.  The whole arrangement rises and falls with the tide.  The net is, therefore when set, at a constant depth beneath the ice and a varying height above the bottom of the river.  Nearly the same arrangement is employed at a bridge in Bucksport, but in this case, the fixtures are attached to the bridge, and the net is at all times, when fishing, close to the bottom.”
Smelt can produce antifreeze protein (glycerol), sensitive to low pH, congregate in salty alkaline seawater before entering the freshwater interface.  A pH below 5.5 has been described as a “block” to smelt in several reports and 6.5 as a low measure for egg viability (Massachusetts Division of Maine Fisheries Technical Report TR-30, Chase, December 2006).  Spawning occurs in mid-March and is dependent upon fast moving water, clean gravel bottoms that are well oxygenated.  Stagnant and fouled bottom growths were seen to reduce egg deposition.

One of the issues for smelt was tolerance to chlorine, a very toxic substance.  Chlorine is more toxic in heat and with ammonia, both features in a positive NAO.  Chlorine in seawater can react with oxygen (also reducing oxygen available for fish respiration) and is oxidized into monochloramine, also toxic to fish.  The higher the temperature, more reactive chlorine is present – the greater the chance of ammonia being present as well.

In New England, the 1950’s and 1960’s were cooler and often storm-filled.  Smelt runs were noted in both eastern and western Connecticut.  This climate pattern is known as a negative NAO – North Atlantic Oscillation.  This pattern usually brings colder winters with more snow.  The Blue Hill Observatory of Milton, Massachusetts notes 1956-7 winter records 106.8 inches of snow – one of the ten snowiest winters in its 135-year history.  (This is in stark contrast to the observatory 2017 February 24 reading of 71oF).  This time period coincides with records of the Greenwich Horseneck Creek smelt runs (See Appendix #2).  However, records exist for New Haven Harbor where The Sound School is located today.  Our research vessel Island Rover conducts small trawl tours and smelt are not caught in any amount.  That was very different 50 years ago as detailed in New Haven monitoring reports prepared for the United Illuminating Company (New Haven, CT).  The Summary Reports were prepared by Normandeau Associates, Inc. (1979) 679 pages.  Page 11-64 has this segment, my comments (T. Visel):

“Smelt were caught in record numbers (up to 1, 140 fish per tow (otter trawl net – T. Visel) during the first three months of 1973 (figure 11-24).  The years before and after 1973 have produced comparatively meager catches of no more than 26 to 70 juveniles per tow.”

The early 1970’s were cooler and these cool water species thrived in Long Island Sound, lobsters, winter flounder and at times smelt.  When populations of fish and shellfish decline, we often strive to enhance them often by aquaculture methods – hatcheries.  When Connecticut’s native brook trout declined in the very hot 1890’s, fishery managers imported brown and rainbow trout strains known to be able to withstand higher temperatures in our state.  The same or similar reactions can be found after the warm 1900’s and lobster dieoff in 1898 to 1903 with the opening of lobster hatcheries in all New England states, including New York.  Our Connecticut fish records can provide additional insight as to how changes in temperature and energy alter Long Island Sound fish and shellfish populations.  We have some records available to review and a short report that provides some insight on what were perceived to be a loss or decline from previous higher catches or greater abundance.  As this concept relates to fisheries, we call that today species of concern, threatened or endangered.  History of climate patterns can show us this response as well.  One of these can be the Connecticut State Board of Fisheries and Game reports from the Noank Lobster Hatchery (presently the Noank Shellfish Cooperative), which closed in the late 1950’s (1957) and turned over to the University of Connecticut.  One report incorporated into the Southern New England Fishermen’s Association 1936 yearbook gives an indication of the species of concern then, smelt, lobsters and winter flounder.  All considered “cold water” species.  In the mid-1950’s as these species recovered, the need of hatchery production was phased down.  Some of the best runs of smelt occurred at this time.

What Climate Conditions Preceded the 1870’s?

Only a few reports mention marine weather, but one source is rich in details – Iceberg prevalence.  In 1847, discussions turned to the increase of icebergs in shipping lanes, urging separate lanes for eastbound and westbound shipping lanes, but maritime nations ruled against separate lanes to avoid icebergs in 1889.  Around this time, melting generated about 7,500 icebergs each year off the coast of Greenland (Ice in the Sea, pg. 74, Waves, Wind and Weather, Nathaniel Bowditch, from the American Practical Navigator, McKay, 1977).  The International Ice Patrol was established in 1913 after the sinking of the SS Titanic with the loss of 1,513 lives.  The Titanic was, in a way, a victim of the “Great Heat,” which strewn hundreds of icebergs in the Atlantic shipping lanes first mentioned decades before.  While over a thousand icebergs were reported south of latitude 48oN (1929) as colder air dipped south as part of a strengthening Icelandic low and a negative NAO weather pattern, only two were reported in this region in 1940 (David McKay, 1977, ibid, pg. 74).  A change in the prevailing winds now tended to keep icebergs north of latitude 48oN as the circumpolar vortex shifted the storm track to the east. This may have kept icebergs from drifting “south” into the northern cross Atlantic lanes [Source: Waves, Wind and Weather, Nathaniel Bowditch].  It is here that we need to review the history of the Northern Sea Route.

For centuries, mariners and navigation of the Northern Sea Route has been impacted by arctic ice.  Each summer, this northern Russian coast navigation-shipping “shortcut” is open to ships for only a few weeks per year, and some years require icebreaking (specialized ships designed to break ice) even in summer.  From 1876 to 1919, this arctic seaway was navigable but by the 1930’s, ice returned and navigation became limited.  This is the colder period when United States shad production peaked in 1958.
In the mid-2000’s, the ice retreated from the north Russian coast and by 2009, the Northern Sea Route or Passage was re-opened to commercial container ships.  In 2018, some companies had short route cruises even for tourists.  The opening of the Northern Sea Route a century ago marked a period of heat and decline of smelt, especially in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

A common factor mentioned by smelt fishers nearly always mentions or refers to “Ice”.  Smelt and ice appear together many times in historical reports.
That makes sense after reviewing its habitat characteristics and its range.  In times of great cold, its range extends to the south, New Jersey; in times of heat, it “retreats” back to more northern, colder waters of Maine.  When Connecticut’s smelt disappeared in the 1980’s, they were still prevalent in Maine.

Capstone Questions
(1)   If the climate influences habitat quality, will smelt make a comeback if it remains “cold”?
(2)   Are some streams that now receive heated (thermal pollution) street storm water ruined for smelt while others, spring-fed or “cooler” cold water streams the last hope for Connecticut smelt?
(3)   Will only the return of ice also return the Connecticut smelt? If the cold continues, would areas to our north also show (record) an increase in smelt?  A long period of cold may show them returning to southern Massachusetts, then Rhode Island and finally Connecticut. How could the return of smelt be determined?

The Return of Smelt
After reading many historical accounts of rainbow smelt fishing, one is left with a prevailing sense of cold and ice.  Almost every account mentions the ice – cutting holes in it, dragging small mesh gill nets under it or setting small fish houses (temporary shelters) over it.  Native American accounts mention statements such as first ice breaks, or dip nets into ice holes by stones, which gathered the heat first and made natural ice “cuts”.  Ice could be used as a measure of smelt’s unique habitat clock.  It could return first to New England streams.  It leads all others with its ability to withstand the cold.  The natural biology of smelt itself gives reason to support a habitat clock for a special habitat capacity and its temperature dependent and ecological habitat space in streams.  Rainbow smelt have the ability to produce specialized proteins that act as an anti-freeze.  It contains a natural habitat advantage.  In very cold times, smelts take advantage of access to spawning and egg “sets” into cold well oxygenated sandy bottoms because it can live in this cold.  They often would return, just as the first ice breaks, making fishing a cold water experience as the historical records confirm.
But what if it wasn’t cold or the cold gradually turned into warm – different species would then expand naturally their habitat clocks, eclipsing the advantage of smelts which now competes with others, namely the alewife.  The records often mention a “ladder” or procession of returning fish [Massachusetts Colonial Sections] with smelt being the first.

United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries Section II: A Geological Review of the Fisheries Industries and Fishing Communities for the Year 1880, Washington CPO 1887 47th Congress 1st Session.
The first step of this ladder being smelt.  Nature, I think, had a plan as all the anadromous fish returning at the same time would have ruined gravel bars and sands to lay eggs as each species sought the same or similar habitats at the same time.  They would destroy each other’s eggs.  Page 45 has this segment – The Belfast District:
“The River fisheries of the region are quite extensive, many salmon alewives and smelt being secured.”
And page 48 (mentioning temperature – T. Visel).
Account of Frank Collins of Belfast (1880):

“The smelt fishing had been poorer here this season than for many years.  Owing to the prevailing warm weather, and ruling low prices, not more than half of the usual number have engaged in this fishery. (The smelts here are all caught with hand lines).  From December 1, 1879 to the present time [March 1880], there have been about five tons of smelts caught here; of these, nearly two tons have been shipped to Portland, Boston and New York.”

The largest section in this 1887 report is for the smelt fishery of Waldoboro, Maine.  On page 59 is found this segment (The 1870s being very cold in New England).
“The principal fishery interest of Waldoboro is the smelt fishery, which is carried on through the ice in winter.  This began in the winter of 1876-77 when it was accidentally found that smelt could be taken in that locality.  The fishery developed with surprising rapidly, for within three weeks after the first smelts were taken over a hundred people were making a business of catching them.  In the winter of 1878-79, 103 shanties with about 225 people (boys and men) were on the ice daily during the height of the season … The best fishing is said to be on the last half of the flood tide, though it sometimes lasts well into the ebb.  The largest catch for one person during any one tide was 45 pounds, equal to about 200 fish, while the average was 15 to 20 pounds per man.  After the ice went out in the spring, some went to the shoal water near the falls, and secured great quantities of the spawning smelt with dip-nets, but on account of the warm weather they could not be shipped and most of them were thrown away.”
Because smelt has such a high oil content, it was difficult to utilize distant markets.  It, therefore, did not register as a commercial species in many US Fish Commission reports but it is mentioned as significant in some coastal areas.  In the 1887 Geological Review The Mystic/Noank is mentioned on page 316 – the Mystic River:
“The haul seines are used from November till February and are not allowed to fish in summer.  They take mostly smelts and eels.  Smelts sometimes come into the river here abundantly.” (Mystic River, Connecticut)

In reviewing the smelt fisheries of New England, the short river runs were larger and better mentioned.  These small fish do not jump and lack the endurance of larger anadromous fish.  Long runs or passage that strains the fish (insufficient flows, brush blockage and shallow weak flows), which arrive in spawning habitats weak and in poor condition.  Smelt lay their eggs in the salt/fish interface (deep pools) areas that have freshwater on the ebb but close to or within the saltwater wedge.  They are unable to use fish ladders and it is thought that they were lifted above obstructions while moving alewife in the same manner.  In the historical records, herring were often passed upstream over dams by hand dip nets in order to maintain runs.  Smelt need clean, well oxygenated gravel, submerged vegetation and sand in which to deposit sticky eggs.  They need the spring ice melt for oxygen, which keeps fungal growths limited.  Fungus in egg masses are fatal and typify habitats that are oxygen-depleted and nutrient-enhanced.  (See appendix #2).  High oxygen levels also help keep ammonia levels low in low pH waters.  Smelts can live to 8 years and females tend to be larger than males.  Temperatures range -4oC (25oF) to 10oC (50oF) with spawning at 2oC (36oF) to 10oC (50oF).  A large female smelt can deposit upward of 50,000 eggs.

Great cold does appear to be the years of good catches.  Some reports and studies mention this environmental association.  A look at fishery landing records and the cold climate trend becomes apparent.  New England has had several periods of cold and relative warmth with two periods of extremes, a period of “great heat” with 1898 as very hot, and two cold periods 1870-1875 and 1958-1968.  Colonial records, however, give greater connections to cold.  Early reports from Massachusetts mention smelt in the harshest of weather, and it is well known that European settlers arrived during a mini ice age, a period of very cold.  These cold periods have persisted as broad cycles and the middle 1870’s set cold records that stand today, and catches mirror the climate.  The winter of 1874-1875 was most severe but catches of smelt after them rose in Connecticut (1880 catch 27,000 lbs.) but later into the Great Heat, 1898 disappeared.

A cold period approximately 1938 to 1968 but more specific 1948 to 1968 the catches of smelt in Connecticut rose and surprisingly the largest catches made in western Connecticut.  Unfortunately, smelt has never reached large scale commercial value here (CT).  Therefore, catch statistics are few and should be only used for trends, not abundance.  Most climate reports do mention this colder period from the late 1940’s to the 1960’s.  It was a time of a negative NAO period (See NOAA Climate Prediction Center) the North Atlantic Oscillation or NAO for short.  During the strongest part of the negative NAO, smelt returned and western Connecticut and held the largest runs in Greenwich Harbor and the Saugatuck River:

One account of the western Connecticut smelt fishery has survived as an oral report and written for Sally Harold of the Connecticut Nature Conservancy in May 2009.  It describes the return of smelt to the Saugatuck River (mid-1960’s) and years before sewage effluent regulation.  Pollution levels were high and mostly unregulated, giving credibility to habitat quality large scale reflect climate conditions as compared to site-specific pollution events.  Twenty-five years ago, researchers were considering chlorine as a substance that could create a chemical block to smelt (Visel and Savoy, 1989) but high temperature sulfides could be far more destructive.  Colder temperatures across New England tend to support greater catches of smelt and stream quality (thermal pollution sulfide levels oxygen levels) does have a seasonal aspect.  Most of the fish kills reported in small bodies of water occur in late August, a time when thermal conditions naturally drive oxygen levels lowest and sulfides increase.

It may be “natural” for smelt to return during cold climates and natural for them to be gone during heat.  Other species, namely the native brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, needs cold, well oxygenated stream and spawning habitat free of organic acids and sulfides.  During the Great Heat, a period of extremely hot temperatures, brook trout populations often failed.  Warmer water tolerant species, namely brown and rainbow trout, were introduced and a larger state/federal trout hatchery effort commenced.  As smelt populations also declined, a portion of the Noank lobster hatchery (lobsters also suffered a dieoff in the heat of 1898) was put into smelt fry production.  A Southern New England Fisherman’s Association, Inc. yearbook for 1936 contains a CT Noank Hatchery Report for smelt, flounders and lobsters, all cool water species (See related Appendix in part 2).  As smelt fisheries declined, great efforts at restoring smelt are also found in Massachusetts (See Appendix #1: The Rise of Smelt – Cooler Waters Return the Ice Fish to Southern New England).

But even hatchery efforts were inconclusive as it was not a reproductive capacity problem (which hatcheries largely tend to solve) but a climate habitat failure – it just became too hot for the smelt to live.  Eventually, state hatchery efforts were ended as smelt disappeared.  The return of smelt in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a result of climate change – it got colder.  Waves of natural ranges change natural distribution of fish just by movement.  Habitat extinction events are first shown in shallow waters as they respond faster than regional sea or ocean temperatures experience slower or delayed change.  If the change is long, it does alter regional offshore water temperatures, but such large scale data can miss habitat quality in shallow streams now subject to thermal water pollution from warm water street runoff, the paving of streets by man.
As climate conditions changed the southern range (and naturally warmer) but as land temperatures soared, it is thought that cold melt water extended the smelt habitat clock until snow pacs diminished.  There was no cold water melt (now described as thaw) to keep Connecticut’s stream and near coastal waters cool.  As pavement increased, hot storm water perhaps acted to end smelt habitat clock even faster.  The Fishery Bulletin #74 by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) titled “Fisheries of the Gulf of Maine” provides a good description of thermal barriers to smelt on pages 136-137:

“Adult smelt gather in harbors and brackish estuaries early in Autumn, where smelt fishing with hook and line is in full swing by October.  The schools then tend to move into the smaller harbors on the flood tide, and out again on the ebb, especially if the tidal current is strong as it is in Cohasset, a locality with which we are familiar.  But some smelt remain over the ebb in deeper basins.  And some of them have run as far as the head of the tide by the time the first ice forms in December.  Most of them winter between the harbor mouths and the brackish water farther up, the maturing fish commence their spawning migration into fresh water in the spring as the ice goes out of the streams and the water warms to the required degree.”

“Temperature observations by the Massachusetts Commission show that the first smelt appear on the spawning beds in Weir River, a stream emptying into Boston Harbor, when the temperature of the water rises to about 40-42oF.  This may take place as early as the first week in March or as late as the last, about Massachusetts May, depending on the forwardness of the season and on the particular stream.  The chief production of eggs takes place in temperatures of 50 to 57oF and spawning is completed in Massachusetts waters by about the 10th or 15th May, year in and year out.  East of Portland, smelt seldom commence to run before April, and continue through May. On the colder streams of the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they do not spawn until June.  On the other hand, they may commence spawning as early as February along the Southern New England coast west of Cape Cod.”

If the negative NAO persists for decades and New England rivers begin to cool, smelt should increase in northern waters first – landings in New Hampshire, Maine, then Massachusetts, followed by Rhode Island and Connecticut, reversing the sequence when waters in New England warmed between 1880 and 1920.
A review of turn of the century reports, including Connecticut reports, includes a smelt fishery from New London to Norwich (Geographical Review of the Fisheries, pg. 317, US Fish Commission, 1887) “During the winter, their catch is smelts, frostfish, eels and flatfish.”  It is known that the eel and winter flounder fisheries were spear fisheries through ice over salt ponds and bays, but frostfish Tomcod (Microgadus tomcod) and smelt were caught in seines but also under ice gill nets set in eastern Connecticut (Alfred Wilcox personal communications, 1980’s).  However, much of the smelt taken did not reach commercial markets.  This appears to be true as the Fulton Market New York Fish Report March 5-10, 1915 (a prime smelt month) did not show smelt on its price sheet (Oysterman and Fisherman, Vol. XII, No. 6, March 11, 1915, pg. 15).
A cross reference to State of Connecticut Biennial Reports of the State Commission of Fisheries and Game show a discrepancy to US Fish and Wildlife statistics.  For example, the 1901-1902, 1911-1912, and 1921-1922 reports mention smelt catches.  One trap net set in Little Narragansett Bay caught 100,000 smelt in a single season (James S. Thompson of Westerly, RI, Little Narragansett Bay 1901-1902).  Also close to 400 fykes and traps set in Connecticut waters (CT 1911-1912 Biennial Report) yielded significant smelt catches under the Pound & Weir section (pg. 56).

Catches of smelt were reported with alewife in fish traps along the Connecticut coast, but cooler waters did appear to have more reports.

Catch of Smelt (in lbs.) New England States Historical Review
Year   Connecticut   Rhode Island   Massachusetts
1880   27,000   95,000   35,000
1924   25,000   0   39,000
1930   10,000   51,000   6,000
1938   0   0   26,000
1950   0   0   0
Source: New England Fisheries 1950 Fishery Digest, page 105.

As determined from the landings data, some states reported zero catches while neighboring states had peak or high catches.  Landings as a basis for fishery management should be equated to long-term trends only – fish could be present but no market (price), fishing gear destroyed by storms or ice conditions precluded fishing, i.e., ice shacks could not be placed on it.  The 1924 catch was preceded by two bitterly cold winters.

A bias in the current literature is present as much of the decline is attributed to human causes impacting habitat quality when a short-term analysis is applied.  It is suggested that much of the Connecticut smelt catch was an ethnic market, or used in local family caught by (recreational or artisanal) methods and not reported as “commercial” landings.  A bias around smelt exists although some researchers mention the dip of ocean temperatures as a possible factor (See Anadromous Rainbow Smelt and Tomcod in Connecticut: Assessment of Populations Conservation Status and Need for Restoring Plan, Fried and Schultz, UCONN, 2006). 

A negative NAO would begin in 2009, see the NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Appendix #1
The Rise of Smelt - Cooler Waters Return the Ice Fish to Southern New England

The fishery managers have tried to cope with species habitat management, the forage base and prey species. For example, silversides favors striped bass as they can collect light better than bluefish, giving them an early morning feeding advantage, most anglers will recognize that stripers rule the night, while blues the day. But what does this mean for predator species when the forage base reverses. During the cold and turbulent 1960s, Menhaden peanut bunkers lined the Connecticut shore and then over a period of 50 years, they declined as water temperatures rose with a warming climate. They were replaced with silversides and striped bass now grew to very large sizes and became abundant in the shallows – bluefishing along the shore declined as waters warmed – as these species require large amounts of oxygen.

One of the species we possibly need to watch in this cooling period (See NOAA Paper 2018, The NAO Evaluation of Shellfish Abundance by MacKenzie and Tarnowski) that continued cooling could impact the “return” of smelt to our water.  Smelt was once prevalent in Long Island Sound and even in New Haven Harbor and easily captured in a 30-foot bottom otter trawl (see Normandeau Associates (1981) New Haven Ecological Studies 1970 to 1980 Benthic Survey data) called the winter fish or ice fish by Native Americans- it must have been a welcome relief of fresh food that came to you. But sometimes excess was just as “bad” than fewer fish returning from the sea to spawn in rivers.
Joe “Buzzy” DiCarlo, Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries, wrote a long report which included smelt- too many returns which was bad, they would tend to disturb each other’s eggs. From DL 89-304 Anadromous Fish Act, Kenneth Publications #6496 (115-50-12-72-CR Reback and Joseph DiCarlo 1972 – Project Period February 1, 1967 to June 30 Completion Report Anadromous Fish Project 1970- Smelt on page 6 is found this statement.)

“Very little is known about the early Massachusetts fishery; Kendall, 1927 states that smelt was abundant in early times and still plentiful in the 1880s, as early in 1874 the taking of smelt was limited to hook and line. In spite of this attempt at conservation, the decline continued, Kendall 1927) noted the continuing decline and attributed it to inaccessibility or degradation of spawning areas rather than to excessive and untimely fishing, an attempt was made to restore or establish smelt runs through widespread stocking between 1910 and 1920.”pg. 25 and pg. 26: “Records from the Massachusetts Division of Fishery and Game states that 5 million 325 thousand eggs and 450 thousand fry were stocked between 1917 and 1924 in the East Branch, Westport River.

Pg. 31   Shippican River – 3 million fry smelt fry stocked in 1918
Pg. 32    Weweantic River, Wareham, Cape Cod

The river below, Horse Shore Pond supports an excellent smelt fishery. The taking of smelt (1931 Act) March 1 to April 1, nets not to exceed 5 square feet.
“The continued success of this fishery causes doubts concerning the biological validity of the regulations in the general laws which are based on the premise that the smelt are too vulnerable both as adults and in the egg stage during the spawning season to support a sustained fishery. It is recommended that a study of the effects of more liberal harvests of smelt be undertaken to determine greater utilization can be made of smelt populations in our coastal streams.”
Pg. 64   South River – The River was heavily stocked with smelt from 1918 through 1920.

The report describes the decline of smelt perfectly during the four-decade period of 1880-1920 – John Hammond’s great heat waves or “great heat.”  Smelt would return to Connecticut in the 1940’s when Southern New England waters cooled. This is now associated with the NAO. Smelt even became prevalent in western Long Island in the Town of Greenwich in the 1950’s. The return of smelt to Connecticut would indicate however, declining habitat quality for the blue crab.  The blue crab was abundant in Connecticut in the 1900s was rare in the middle 1950’s.

Appendix #2
The Improved Method of Hatchery Smelts 1894
By Fred Mather

Transactions of the American Fisheries Society Vol 23, 1894, Issue I
(This was a time of extreme heat in New England)

Smelt need the salt to keep fungus from killing its eggs, a concern with trout species in sand/gravel habitats.  As early as 1897 did researchers investigate the influence of fungus upon smelt eggs and its name was “Saprolegnia.”

Fred Mather – 1894

“Outside of my own articles on smelt hatching in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth reports of this society, I can find nothing on the subject except on item in the paper of the late prof H.J. Rice on “Salt as an Agent for the Destruction of the Fish Fungus” in the thirteenth report.  On page 19 professor Rice records that in 1877 he was studying the embryology of the smelt and found the eggs in masses in the hatching jars and covered with fungus, but not until 1884 did he have a chance to try the effect of salt on killing this saprolegnia.  The eggs were upon blades of sedge or water grass, after the manner employed by Mr. Charles G. Atkins some years before, which “prevents to a great extent, if not entirely, the massing together of the eggs since the rough surface of the blades allow only a single layer at most to adhere to the surface” still there was much fungus present.  The salt killed the fungus and “only about five percent of the whole number failed to hatch.”

The presence of Saprolegnia fungus has plauged fresh water fish culturists for over a century and is found in the fisheries literature today.  Also known as water mold this white filaments fungus is a pathogen.  They are termed saprotrophic – or they live off decaying organic matter.  They occur at the fresh water interface and tolerate low pH.  They live in and around sapropel deposits – T. Visel.

Appendix #3
Update on Connecticut Smelt 2006
December Public Hearings Conducted by The State Department of Environmental Protection

Comments on closing the smelt fishery – December 2006, Old Lyme, DEP Office
“It’s a shame it’s come to this point (Eastern Connecticut Fishermen).  I still see some – I use balls of soft cat food to catch them – Pawcatuck River – Stonington.  Some years I see them, some years nothing.”

Dave Simpson CT DEP – “You try not to close the fishery like this because you lose the opportunity to collect information about the fishery” (from the fishermen).
Notice of Availability of Final Proposed Regulations October 23, 2006.

1.   26-142a-1. Remove RAINBOW SMELT from, and add bay anchovy, sheepshead minnow, mullet species and various shrimp families to, the list of species that may be taken commercially in the inland district; clarify the title of the regulation section; make corrections to scientific names; and make technical corrections.

2.   26-142a-4. Make technical corrections to the citations of other regulation sections; and eliminate a reference to the closed season for RAINBOW SMELT so that commercial fishing is prohibited.

3.   26-142a-6. Make technical corrections; make title and textual clarifications; delete gear references related to RAINBOW SMELT; require that gill nets fished under authority of a personal use gill net license be personally attended by the licensee; and delete obsolete references to gear used to take grass eels.

4.   26-159a-1. Clarify the title of the regulations; and prohibit the take or possession of RAINBOW SMELT in the marine district or in inland waters where commercial fishing is allowed.

A notice of intent to amend and adopt these regulations was published in the Connecticut Law Journal on November 8, 2005.  Public hearings were held on December 8, 2005 and December 12, 2005 and the public comment period was kept open until December 26, 2005.
Department of Environmental Protection

Marine Fisheries Division
P.O. Box 719
Old Lyme, CT 06371




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