Eating Delta Smelt

by Peter Moyle, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis

Delta smelt are an endangered species and the latest estimates of their numbers indicate they will likely not be around much longer as wild fish. When I first started working on them, in the 1970s, they were abundant and frequently caught in various sampling programs. One of my regrets is that I never ate any that we caught, despite the fact that smelt in general are highly regarded as food fish. Indeed, a memorable experience from my high school days in Minnesota was driving up to the North Shore of Lake Superior with friends and spending a night dip-netting rainbow smelt in the freezing water. We built a fire on the beach and luxuriously fried the smelt in butter. We ate them heads and all, a tradition I learned from my father. Delicious.

Fig. 1 Sunrise, Suisun Marsh, December 17, 2015. Photo by P. Moyle

Historically, the principal smelts of the San Francisco estuary were longfin smelt, delta smelt, and, probably, surf smelt; the latter is mostly a marine species. Archaeological evidence suggests smelt were caught and eaten on occasion by the indigenous peoples of the region. In the latter half of the 19th century, there was a smelt fishery in the estuary, but it was poorly documented, presumably because the fish were mainly caught and consumed by Chinese immigrants. In Jordan and Evermann (1896), however, the authors characterized the “pond smelts” – a group of related species that includes delta smelt, as  “…sweet little fish, delicious as food”  and again in 1923  as“delicious and excellent little food fish…”

I encountered delta smelt (and longfin smelt) on a regular basis after the UC Davis project began to monitor fish populations in Suisun Marsh in 1979. They were commonly captured in the otter trawls that we used monthly at multiple sampling stations. Given that we only trawled for 5 or 10 minutes at each locality, with a trawl-net dragged along the bottom (smelt are pelagic), it is a tribute to smelt abundance that enough were caught to make a meal. At that time, they were not a species of concern for any agency, much less classified as endangered.

I was reminded of their lost abundance then when Sonia Cook recently sent me some photos she had taken of sampling the marsh on November 16, 1982. Sonia at that time was a technician in the Botany Department who was interested in fish and enjoyed going out with my sampling crew as a volunteer. Being an adventurous person, she asked if she could bring some smelt home for dinner that night. The 35-40 smelt that Sonia kept were just part of the day’s catch. They are shown in the photo she took of the smelt that she kept.

Fig 2. Smelt for dinner. A sampling of delta smelt (lower fish with blue sheen) and longfin smelt (pale upper fish) from Suisun Marsh, November 1982. Photo by S. Cook.

This got me thinking about how badly we have managed the smelt’s pelagic habitat since that time. Now the greatest fear of many fish sampling programs is that one or two delta smelt will be caught, which could shut down an entire program (like the one in Suisun Marsh) because of take restrictions stemming from the Endangered Species Act. Think of how much better off the Delta ecosystem would be if the protections for smelt existed to protect a fishery, not the few last individuals. I am sad that I missed the opportunity to dine on delta and longfin smelt. But that is the goal we should be working towards: restoring delta and longfin smelt to a point where they can be harvested in the San Francisco Estuary and watershed…or at least contribute significantly to the food webs as they once did.

Further Reading

Jordan, D.S. and B. W. Evermann. 1896. The Fishes of North and Middle America. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 47, Part 1.

Jordan, D.S. and B. W. Evermann. 1923. American Food and Game Fishes.  New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.

Moyle, P.B., K. Bork, J. Durand, T. Hung, and A.L. Rypel. 2019. Futures for Delta Smelt. California WaterBlog, https://californiawaterblog.com/2019/12/15/futures-for-delta-smelt/

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2 Responses to Eating Delta Smelt

  1. Dan Ray says:

    You & Marilyn should have been with Dori & I a couple years ago at a fish house in Petaluma, that mostly featured Tomales Bay oysters. In keeping with its local farm-to-fork theme, however, its menu promised a Delta smelt appetizer. We passed on that order, not wanting to encounter federal game wardens, but I had to smirk.

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  2. tryg sletteland says:

    Yes, we have we have managed the smelt’s pelagic habitat very badly indeed, Dr. Moyle, mainly by continuing to withdraw increasing amounts of freshwater from the Delta. Will we be able to return to sound management of Delta flows in order to restore salmon and smelt populations? Right now it looks doubtful.

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