COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Every year, the Downeast Salmon Federation celebrates the arrival of spring with a smelt fry. This year’s event, held last month in the wake of the state’s closing of the smelt fishery from Stonington south, drew about 300 people for a dinner of the deep-fried little fish.

“Celebrate” was a word that Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the federation, has since used several times while discussing the group’s efforts to better research and save what he calls the heritage fishery.

He said the federation wants to partner with fishermen from Calais to Stonington to gather information about the health of the fishery in Washington and Hancock counties.

“We’re trying to set up a network of volunteers along the whole coastline,” he said last week.

The Department of Marine Resources announced in March that spring smelt fishing on coastal tributaries between Stonington and the New Hampshire border would be closed for 90 days effective March 14. The action targeted recreational anglers.

South of the Penobscot River, from Stonington to Kittery, only 38 percent of historic smelt spawning areas support spawning runs, based on data gathered from 2005-09. Data collected since then has supported that assessment, according to DMR.

Smelts used to be prevalent as far south as the mid-Atlantic, noted Shaw. Now, however, the last stronghold is Maine — particularly eastern Maine.

Washington County supports the last commercial smelt fishery, which consists of just a few licensed commercial fishermen and their crews who use gill nets or bag nets. However, Shaw estimated there are probably 1,000 or more people in Washington and Hancock counties who enjoy catching rainbow smelts, the species found in Maine.

“It’s a really interesting fishery,” he said, “because it’s what I call a heritage fishery.” People who fish for smelts take their children or other family members, he said, and they share their catch with other people in their community. Senior citizens who relied on smelts as a source of food in the spring still want them, and people of younger generations are out in the streams, catching them, and supplying the old-timers.

That heritage, noted Shaw, goes back centuries. A traditional Penobscot tribal calendar, for example, referred to April as the “smelt moon.” There also are public records of families in Columbia Falls harvesting smelts and trading them for such goods as lumber before the American Revolution. Descendants of those same families are still catching and enjoying smelts, according to Shaw.

Shaw and other members of the federation are seeking to increase public involvement in documenting the region’s smelt fishery, to better monitor it “to have a better sense of what’s going on.” They want to gather data on which streams still produce smelts and to what extent. The information will be shared with DMR.

“We don’t want to create a problem where there isn’t one,” said Shaw. “We want to celebrate our success.”

Since DMR has limited staff resources, the work of the Downeast Salmon Federation will help “fill in some gaps,” acknowledged Claire Enterline, a specialist with the agency.

“That is important information to us,” she said, and will help the agency evaluate “how the smelt fishery is doing down there.”

Meanwhile, not everyone is happy with DMR’s decision to close the fishery along much of the coast. Bailey Bowden of Penobscot, who chairs the Penobscot Shellfish Conservation Committee, has criticized the agency and Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

Bowden circulated a petition contending DMR’s decision was in error because it was based on insufficient data and requesting the fishery be allowed to remain open until a scientific assessment is conducted. It was signed by 160 people over 10 days, according to Bowden.

He said he met privately with Keliher in Bangor in April when the commissioner told him that “the closure line was an arbitrary decision.”

According to information provided to him by DMR, the last time the agency did any surveying for smelt on the Bagaduce River was a small poll conducted by marine patrol in 2007.

“What they do have shows a great run in the town of Penobscot,” said Bowden. “So I don’t understand” why the agency closed the fishery in that part of Hancock County.

“Decisions regarding the management of our natural resources must be based on scientific fact, not whim, because that’s pretty much what this seems to be like — someone’s whim,” said Bowden.

A spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources responded that the “decision to close any of Maine’s fisheries is one of the most difficult the commissioner has to make and Maine’s smelt fishery is no exception.

“These decisions are always made with the best available science and with an appreciation for the hardship they cause to those who harvest our marine resources,” said spokesman Jeff Nichols. “But they are made with the intent of sustaining those resources for the future.”

Nichols acknowledged that DMR has limited available data on the fishery and that more research would be helpful.

Based on what is available, however, he said the agency “chose a conservative measure by temporarily closing this portion of the coast to ensure the opportunity for smelt to recover. This decision to undertake an emergency closure, which lasts only 90 days, balances the need to protect the resource with the desire to preserve opportunity for recreational and commercial harvesters for future years.”

Nichols said the department would be holding stakeholder meetings this summer to get more input on localized smelt populations to help the department better determine a final course of action.

Smelts will respond to conservation efforts, said Shaw, notably efforts to reopen habitat, which he said “can have a direct and immediate effect.” Those efforts to reopen habitat are directed primarily at opening up dams and replacing culverts that do not support fish passage.

The decline of water quality in spawning areas is another factor in declining smelt populations, noted Enterline. Pollution — particularly nonpoint source pollution, which is runoff from storms or heavy rains — remains an issue.

“That is still a very serious problem,” said Enterline, referring to runoff, “especially for coastal waters,” where runoff empties into coastal streams with few buffers to catch or reduce pollutants.

The federation established the first smelt reserve in the U.S., acquiring a piece of land in Harrington around a small stream where smelts spawn and maintaining public access. The organization has worked with the Department of Marine Resources to make changes in some regulations related to smelts and have “made some good progress,” said Shaw.

Now, he is anxious to develop partnerships with recreational fisherman throughout many small communities. “We’re looking for their help to document habitat and steward what is there,” he said. “We’re creating the eyes and ears for smelt management so we can see problems where they exist or hear about them before they happen.”

“By taking these measures,” said Shaw, such as removing a dam on the Pleasant River in the 1990s to support a smelt population, creating the habitat reserve in Harrington, and working with landowners on culverts, “we are being proactive in trying to detect and restore these fish so we can continue to harvest them. And celebrate them.”

The federation can provide survey forms and training to anglers to help gather information about the fishery.

People who want to help the Downeast Salmon Federation document information about the smelt fishery should call the organization at its office in Columbia Falls at 207-483-4336.