Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research


Smelt is a family member of the salmon. Photo: Igor Kovalchuck

A cucumber-like odour

An abundant fish species in Lake IJssel and fished very heavily, the smelt is not popular amongst the Dutch fish-eating population and never has been. It was always known as ‘a fish to eat when there is nothing else’. This is most likely due to its smell; from a meter’s distance one can recognise the cucumber-like odour the fish produces. However, there have always been people who like this smell so there was always a market for smelt, especially in the south of Europe where they fry and eat them whole. Up until the beginning of 2012 many of this species were caught in so-called fyke nets and stow nets. The fish was also used as bait for crab pots and for freshwater fish; centuries ago it was an important bait in the cod fishery. But mankind is not the only predator of smelt, many bird species, such as terns, rely on smelt for survival. In 2012, the Dutch government decided in favour of the birds and halted the smelt fisheries.

Family member of the salmon

Smelt is a family member of the salmon. A common feature is the ‘adipose’ fin, i.e. a fleshy fin that lacks rays, found on top of the fish near the tail. It is also partly anadromous, meaning it lives in the sea but spawns in fresh water. In the Netherlands there is also a landlocked population in Lake IJssel; these fish only live 4-5 years and have a maximum length of 15 cm. The anadromous population can reach 30 cm at 8 years.

It is likely that smelt still enter Lake IJssel through the sluices, and their future is bright now the plans for a fish migration river through the Enclosure Dam have been granted, facilitating their spawning in fresh waters. Many (anadromous and catadromous) fish species can take advantage of this migration river, so in this case we 'throw a sprat to catch a herring' (in Dutch we say 'throw a smelt to catch a cod').

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