Osmerus mordax (Mitchill, 1814)

Common Name: Rainbow Smelt

Synonyms and Other Names:

Wayne Nelson-Stastny - South Dakota Game, Fish, and ParksCopyright Info

Identification: Scott and Crossman (1973); Becker (1983); Smith (1985); Page and Burr (1991).  

Size: 33 cm

Native Range: Atlantic drainages from Lake Melville, Newfoundland, to Delaware River, and Pennsylvania; Arctic and Pacific drainages from Bathurst Inlet, Northwest Territories, to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Also, Pacific drainages of Asia (Page and Burr 1991). The origin of Osmerus mordax in Lake Ontario is disputed, as they are thought to be either native or introduced from the Atlantic through the Erie Canal (Mills et al. 1993). Another alternative is that O. mordax migrated downstream from the upper Great Lakes, where it is considered nonindigenous.

Great Lakes Nonindigenous Occurrences: Rainbow smelt occur in all five Great Lakes and also have been introduced or dispersed after introduction into several large rivers. Areas with introduced smelt include the Mississippi River, Arkansas (Pennington et al. 1982; Mayden et al. 1987); reservoirs in the South Platte and Arkansas drainages and headwaters of the Colorado basin in Colorado (Woodling 1985; Propst and Carlson 1986; Rasmussen 1998); several lakes in Connecticut (Webster 1942); the Chattahoochee River below Lake Lanier, Georgia (Dahlberg and Scott 1971a, 1971b); lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho (Linder 1963; Simpson and Wallace 1978); Lake Michigan (Emery 1985; Burr 1991), the Mississippi River, the Illinois River (Burr and Mayden 1980; Mayden et al. 1987; Burr 1991, Burr et al. 1996), and Ohio River (Burr 1991) in Illinois (Smith 1979; Burr and Page 1986); Lake Michigan and the Ohio River near Madison and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana (Emery 1985; Mayden et al. 1987; Tilmant 1999); the Missouri River, Iowa (Harlan et al. 1987; Mayden et al. 1987); the Missouri River, Kansas (Mayden et al. 1987); the Mississippi River, Kentucky (Burr and Warren 1986; Mayden et al. 1987); the Mississippi River, Louisiana (Suttkus and Conner 1980; Mayden et al. 1987); Schoodic Lake, Maine (Havey 1973) and inland waters statewide (Halliwell 2003); Maryland (Ferguson 1876; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994); nonnative waters of Massachusetts (Smith 1833; Hartel 1992; Hartel et al. 2002) such as Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge (USFWS 2005); the Great Lakes, Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan (Emery 1985; Tilmant 1999); Lake Superior ,Voyageurs National Park, and Grand Portage National Monument , Minnesota (Emery 1985; Burr and Page 1986; Tilmant 1999); the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Missouri (Cross et al. 1986; Mayden et al. 1987; Pflieger 1997; Young et al. 1997; Rasmussen 1998); the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, Montana (Gould 1981; Cross et al. 1986; Mayden et al. 1987; Holton 1990); the Missouri River in Nebraska (Cross et al. 1986; Bouc 1987; Mayden et al. 1987) and Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS 2005); several dozen lakes in New Hampshire (Scarola 1973); Lake Erie (Emery 1985), Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes, the Adirondack lakes, Neversink Reservoir, and Lake Champlain in New York (Werner 1980); Tennessee drainage, North Carolina (Menhinick 1991); Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River, North Dakota (Gould 1981; Bouc 1987; Harlan et al. 1987; Mayden et al. 1987; Holton 1990; Young et al. 1997); Lake Erie, Ohio (Emery 1985); Lake Erie (Emery 1985) and Harvey's Lake (Susquehanna drainage), Pennsylvania (Denoncourt et al. 1975; Hendricks et al. 1979; Cooper 1983; Hocutt et al. 1986); reservoirs on the Missouri River, Chantier Creek South Dakota (Mayden et al. 1987; Young et al. 1997; Hanten, personal communication; Hull 2005); the Mississippi River, Watauga Reservoir, and South Fork Holston River, Tennessee (Mayden et al. 1987; Etnier and Starnes 1993); Lake Champlain, Vermont (Werner 1980); the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir, Virginia (Hocutt et al. 1986; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994); and Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and several other lakes throughout the state of Wisconsin (Emery 1985; Burr and Page 1986; Tilmant 1999; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 2003).

Established in Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada (Yule, personal communication 2005).

Table 1. Great Lakes region nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state/province, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Osmerus mordax are found here.

Full list of USGS occurrences

State/ProvinceYear of earliest observationYear of last observationTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
Illinois192319911Lake Michigan
Indiana192319992Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien
Michigan1906201716Betsie-Platte; Betsy-Chocolay; Boardman-Charlevoix; Cheboygan; Dead-Kelsey; Detroit; Escanaba; Great Lakes Region; Kalamazoo; Lake Erie; Lake Huron; Lake Michigan; Lake St. Clair; Lake Superior; St. Clair; St. Marys
Minnesota194520063Baptism-Brule; Lake Superior; St. Louis
New York192919947Black; Lake Erie; Lake Ontario; Oak Orchard-Twelvemile; Oswegatchie; Raquette; Seneca
Ohio193520172Black-Rocky; Lake Erie
Pennsylvania193519971Lake Erie
Vermont199319942St. Francois River; Winooski River
Wisconsin1923201214Bad-Montreal; Beartrap-Nemadji; Brule; Door-Kewaunee; Lake Michigan; Lake Superior; Lower Fox; Manitowoc-Sheboygan; Menominee; Milwaukee; Ontonagon; Pike-Root; St. Louis; Wolf

Table last updated 2/22/2020

† Populations may not be currently present.

* HUCs are not listed for areas where the observation(s) cannot be approximated to a HUC (e.g. state centroids or Canadian provinces).

Ecology: Rainbow smelt are zooplanktivorous at small sizes (<150 mm SL), consuming copepods and cladocerans (e.g., Daphnia and Bosmina), and include benthic crustaceans and small fishes into the diet at larger sizes (>150 mm SL; Sheppard et al. 2012).

Means of Introduction: The earliest known record is from 1912, when eggs were stocked in Crystal Lake, Michigan, which drains into Lake Michigan (Van Oosten 1937). Fish escaped into Lake Michigan and spread quickly throughout the Great Lakes and their tributaries (Creaser 1926; Gerking 1945; Hubbs and Lagler 1947; Nelson and Gerking 1968; Christie 1974; Eddy and Underhill 1974; Smith 1979; Morrow 1980; Phillips et al. 1982; Cooper 1983; Emery 1985). Early records documenting the smelt's range expansion in the Great Lakes include Lake Michigan, 1923 (Christie 1974; Emery 1985), Lake Erie, 1935 (Cooper 1983; Smith 1985), Lake Huron, 1925 (Christie 1974; Eddy and Underhill 1974), Lake Ontario, 1929 (Christie 1974; Smith 1985), and Lake Superior, 1923 (Emery 1985). The Lake Ontario population may be either native to this lake or migrated downstream, possibly through the Welland Canal. (Emery 1985; Smith 1985). Another possibility is that the species was introduced from the Finger Lakes via the Seneca-Cayuga, Erie and Oswego canals (Smith 1985).

Two means have been proposed to explain the introduction of rainbow smelt into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. It may have spread from Lake Michigan via the Chicago sanitary canal to the Illinois River and then to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (Burr and Mayden 1980). Alternatively, the species may have gained access to these rivers as a result of a stocking at Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota, in 1971 (Bouc 1987; Mayden et al. 1987; Holton 1990). The second explanation seems more plausible because of a lack of records from the Illinois River. Records of first occurrences in other areas include the Mississippi River, Illinois and Kentucky, 1978; Mississippi River, Louisiana, 1979; Mississippi River, Tennessee and Arkansas, 1980; Missouri River, Missouri, 1980; Missouri River, Kansas, 1982 (Mayden et al. 1987). Mayden et al (1987) provided a map of the species' distribution, dates of first observation in new areas, and possible introduction pathways. The species was originally introduced into Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota, as a forage for salmonids (Mayden et al. 1987).

Status: Introduced populations of this species have been very successful and the rainbow smelt is now established in the Great Lakes and in most rivers and lakes where introduced. This species has done so well in the Great Lakes that a commercial fishery targeting smelt has been operating there for many years (Smith 1985). It is the most abundant fish in some samples taken from the Mississippi River (Pflieger 1997). Nevertheless, no adults of the rainbow smelt have been found in either Missouri (Pflieger 1997) or Tennessee (Etnier and Starnes 1993). As such, Pflieger (1997) concluded that populations in Missouri are maintained by continued escape of fish from upstream reservoirs on the Missouri River. As of 1987, only one specimen had been taken from the Ohio River (Mayden et al. 1987). It is considered extirpated in Georgia; the species has not been observed in that state since its release (Dahlberg and Scott 1971b). 

Great Lakes Impacts:

Osmerus mordax has a high environmental impact in the Great Lakes.

Since its introduction, rainbow smelt has become extremely integrated into the food webs of the Great Lakes. Its complex connections to various trophic levels have been documented by a wide range of studies. In different ecosystems, rainbow smelt may be an important a prey item, predator, or competitor (Evans and Loftus 1987); in many cases, it may participate in multiple roles relative to a native species. Part of this complexity lies in the fact that rainbow smelt can have different impacts on native species during its different life stages (Hrabik et al. 2001). Impacts may also differ with the age class of the native species. For instance, rainbow smelt consumes larval fishes and is a documented predator of lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) eggs (Evans and Loftus 1987); however, rainbow smelt is in many cases the primary food source of adult lake trout (Gorman 2007).

In the Great Lakes, rainbow smelt may compete with cisco (Coregonus artedi) for food (Becker 1983). Christie (1974) supplied some evidence to support this, correlating cisco decline with smelt increases in most of the lake. However, declines, local extirpations, and limitations to recovery of cisco populations have also been attributed to rainbow smelt predation on larval fish rather than competition (Hrabick et al. 1998, Stockwell et al. 2009). Both predation by and competition with rainbow smelt have been implicated in the declines of several endangered or special concern species in Canada, including blackfin cisco (C. nigripinnis) and shortnose cisco (C. reighardi), as well as deepwater sculpin (Myoxocephalus thompsonii) (COSEWIC 2005, 2006, 2007). Todd (1986) also reported that smelt may be partially responsible for the decline of whitefishes (Coregonus spp.) in the Great Lakes. The ultimate extent of rainbow smelt impact on native cisco species in the Great Lakes remains uncertain (Dobiesz et al. 2005, Schmidt et al. 2009). Rainbow smelt may play role in the decline of other threatened natives, and has been suggested as a factor leading to the extinction of blue pike (Sander vitreus glaucus) (Dextrase and Mandrak 2006, Hartman 1973, USEPA 2008).

In a review of rainbow smelt introductions in inland Ontario lakes, Evans and Loftus (1978) found that 13 of 24 lakes with introduced rainbow smelt experienced a decline in lake whitefish (C. clupeaformis) recruitment while 5 of 19 reported declines in cisco. Hrabik et al. (1998) found evidence of competition for food between introduced rainbow smelt and native yellow perch (Perca flavescens) in Wisconsin lake habitats. A study of Wisconsin inland lakes with and without introduced rainbow smelt from 1985-2004 found that young-of-the-year walleye (Sander vitreus) density was significantly lower in invaded lakes (Mercado-Silva et al. 2007). However, a separate study of two Wisconsin lakes found that fishing restrictions that allowed the recovery of adult walleye populations over a number of years was concurrent with a decline in rainbow smelt and recovery of native cisco (C. artedi) (Krueger and Hrabik 2004).

A study on nighttime consumption of O. mordax in Lake Ontario revealed its primary food source to be slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus) and opossum shrimp (Mysis relicta) (Brandt and Madon 1986). Juvenile lake trout relies heavily on C. cognatus, competing directly with O. mordax, while adult S. namaycush consumes O. mordax (Brandt and Madon 1986). The authors point out that S. namaycush may be a keystone predator in the relationship between O. mordax and C. cognatus. Rainbow smelt is also known to feed on the young of lake whitefish, lake trout, and burbot (Lota lota) (Evans and Loftus 1987). Stedman and Argyle (1985) found the diet of O. mordax to include young-of-the-year fishes, with consumption of particular prey species dependent upon prey availability (Stedman and Argyle 1985). Stedman and Argyle (1985) discovered that in Lake Michigan in late October of 1982, O. mordax consumed bloater (C. hoyi) and alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus). The authors also noted that although O. mordax did not appear to have had an impact on bloater populations between 1980 and 1985, future impact is possible.

Current research on the socio-economic impact of Osmerus mordax in the Great Lakes is inadequate to support proper assessment.

While many recreationally important species benefit from rainbow smelt as a prey item, in some instances, rainbow smelt has been associated with predation on and competition with these species (see above).

Osmerus mordax has a high beneficial effect in the Great Lakes.

Havey (1973) reported increased growth of landlocked Atlantic salmon following the introduction of smelt as a forage species in a lake in Maine. Osmerus mordax has also been used by USGS to monitor contaminant levels in the Great Lakes (Chernyak et al. 2005).

Rainbow smelt can have a wide range of interactions with native species and sometimes demonstrates a neutral coexistence, such as with smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) and white sucker (Catostomus commersonii) (Evans and Loftus 1987). Rainbow smelt can also have a positive impact on natives because it provides a food source to many native and non-native piscivores in the Great Lakes, including native burbot, yellow perch, and recreationally important introduced salmonids. Species such as walleye and lake trout may both benefit and suffer from introductions of rainbow smelt depending on the extent to which rainbow smelt acts as a prey item, predator, or competitor (Evans and Loftus 1987). Because so many species—including recreational and commercial species—depend on rainbow smelt as a food source, rainbow smelt are a vital member of the current food web and are considered by some to be an important species to manage and conserve (Schmidt et al. 2009).

Rainbow smelt is not only valuable as a forage or bait fish for top predators; it is harvested commercially in both the U.S. and Canada, particularly in lakes Michigan and Erie (Dann and Schroeder 2003, Madenjian et al. 2002). It was estimated in 2003 that the commercial smelt harvest in the U.S. Great Lakes alone was worth over $750,000 yr-1—more than lake trout, lake herring, or Pacific salmons (Dann and Schroeder 2003). Historically, recreational harvest of rainbow smelt has also been popular (Scott and Crossman 1998); an annual harvest of over 150,000 rainbow smelt in the Great Lakes system was recently reported in a 2005 survey of anglers in Canada (Fisheries and Oceans Canada 2008).

Management: Regulations (pertaining to the Great Lakes)
Use of rainbow smelt is regulated in the Canadian province of Quebec under Canada Federal Statutes and Regulations SOR 90-214. A population of rainbow smelt in an area south of the St. Lawrence estuary is designated a vulnerable wildlife species in Quebec under Quebec Statutes and Regulations RRQ, c E-12.01, r 2. The sale of dead rainbow smelt is prohibited in Quebec by Quebec Statutes and Regulations RRQ, c C-61.1, r 7. In Ontario, rainbow smelt use as bait and non-angling fishing methods are regulated by Canada Federal Statutes and Regulations SOR 2007-237 .

In the state of New York, it is unlawful to use rainbow smelt as bait except as provided in 6 NY CRR § 19.2. Furthermore, it is unlawful to take rainbow smelt for sale as bait or to sell as bait, except as otherwise provided as without a pursuant license as defined in NY ECL § 11-1315. In Pennsylvania, the use of commercial trap nets under license to capture rainbow smelt is regulated by Penn. Admin. Code § 69.33. In Ohio, rainbow smelt is defined as a commercial fish and an unrestricted species under Ohio Admin. Code 1501 § 31-1-02. Commercial fish are permitted to be taken, possessed, bought, or sold unless otherwise restricted in Ohio code. In Indiana, the rainbow smelt sport fishing season on Lake Michigan is defined as March 1-May 30, with capture allowed only by the use of dip nets, seines, or nets with limitations provided in 312 IAC § 9-7-2. There is otherwise no bag limit, possession limit, or size limit, as defined under 312 IAC § 9-7-14. In Illinois, the sport-fishing season of rainbow smelt is defined as March 1-April 30 under Illinois Admin. Code 17-1 § 810.10. In Wisconsin, rainbow smelt is defined as an established non-native fish species in Wis. Admin. Code § NR 40.02, and is restricted per the above definition by Wis. Admin Code § NR 40.05. In Minnesota, rainbow smelt is a regulated invasive species under Minn. Admin Rules § 6216.0260.

Note: Check federal, state/provincial, and local regulations for the most up-to-date information.

Several species of non-native salmonids have been introduced to the Great Lakes, beginning in the 1960s, to control invasive rainbow smelt (GLMRIS 2012). Rainbow smelt is heavily consumed by Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), brook trout (S. fontinalis), coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), chinook salmon (O. tshawytcha), rainbow trout (O. mykiss), brown trout (Salmo trutta), splake (brook trout x lake trout), burbot (Lota lota), walleye (Sander vitreus), northern pike (Esox lucius), and many other freshwater piscivores (Brandt and Madon 1986; Crossman 1991; GLMRIS 2012; He and LaBar 1994; Kirn and LaBar 1996; Stewart et al. 1981). However, the significance of piscivore predation on rainbow smelt has only been studied for a few species. Observed Atlantic salmon predation on smaller rainbow smelt, as well as bioenergetics modeling suggesting that by age 4, cumulative piscivory by Atlantic salmon was nearly 10-fold greater than that of lake trout of the same age, implies its greater usefulness for management of rainbow smelt (Kirn and LaBar 1996). While lake trout consume large amounts of rainbow smelt, almost exclusively so in some studies, the species is believed to provide little potential for responsive management manipulation outside of stabilizing fluctuating prey populations, due to the long cycle of its predatory effect (peaking 3-5 years after stocking, lasting 7-8 years) (He and LaBar 1994; Kirn and LaBar 1996; Stewart et al. 1981). Chinook salmon have been successfully used to eradicate rainbow smelt from small lakes in New Hampshire in 1936 (Stewart et al. 1981). Because the trade-off between fish species as agents of biological control is not directly correlated with consumption, management decisions involving shifts between species should not take consumption solely into account (Stewart et al. 1981).

The USACE Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study notes the potential effectiveness of sensory deterrent systems in providing barriers to fish migration or eliciting fish movements (GLMRIS 2012). In situ testing of two models of strobe lights as a deterrent preventing entrainment of rainbow smelt through Oahe Dam, Lake Oahe, South Dakota demonstrated successful avoidance of 15-21 m horizontally and 6 m vertically by rainbow smelt (Hamel et al. 2008). Many large scale strobe systems consist of four individual lights that flash at a rate of 450 flashes/min., with an approximate intensity of 2634 lumens/flash (GLMRIS 2012).  Hamel et al. (2008) tested the AGL FH-901 flashhead, which consists of four horizontal lights positioned at 90 degree angles, flashing 450 times/min at 2,634 lumens/flash, and the newer AGL FH-920 flashhead, which consists of an omnidirectional vertical light tube, covering a full 360 degrees with 360 flashes/min at 6,585 lumens. When using physical deterrents as barriers, combining methods can increase effectiveness, as was the case for Patrick et al. (1985), who found that rainbow smelt and other pelagic fishes were successfully deterred by a barrier combining air bubbles and strobe lights.

Of the four chemical piscicides registered for use in the United States, antimycin A and rotenone are considered general piscicides (GLMRIS 2012). Marking et al. (1983) found that the three most effective registered chemicals for potential use in control of rainbow smelt eggs and larvae are rotenone, potassium permanganate, and chlorine, respectively. In exposures of 6-24 hours, all chemicals were effective at concentrations from 5 to >10 mg/L (Marking et al. 1983). Rotenone demonstrated a 96h LC50 of 0.015 mg/L for rainbow smelt eggs and 0.001 mg/L for larvae (derived calculating only the activity of rotenone in 5% Noxfish solution) (Marking et al. 1983). Potassium permanganate demonstrated 96h LC50s of 0.074 mg/L and 0.075 mg/L for eggs and larvae, respectively. Chlorine demonstrated 96h LC50s of 0.14 mg/L for eggs and 0.31 mg/L for larvae (Marking et al. 1983). Temperature, pH, and hardness of water all affected toxicity of rotenone and potassium permanganate, with higher temperatures, softer water, and higher pH increasing toxicity (Marking et al. 1983). It should be noted that tests were carried out in a laboratory, but natural waters usually contain oxidizable material, which produces a demand on chlorine and reduces it to a less active form (Marking et al. 1983).

Increasing CO2 concentrations, either by bubbling pressurized gas directly into water or by the addition of sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) has been used to sedate fish with minimal residual toxicity, and is a potential method of harvesting fish for removal, though maintaining adequate CO2 concentrations may be difficult in large/natural water bodies (Clearwater et al. 2008). CO2 is approved only for use as an anesthetic for cold, cool, and warm water fishes the US, not for use as euthanasia (Clearwater et al. 2008). Exposure to NaHCO3 concentration of 142-642 mg/L for 5 min. is sufficient to anaesthetize most fish (Clearwater et al 2008).

It should be noted that chemical treatment will often lead to non-target kills, and so all options for management of a species should be adequately studied before a decision is made to use piscicides or other chemicals. Potential effects on non-target plants and organisms, including macroinvertebrates and other fishes, should always be deliberately evaluated and analyzed. The effects of combinations of management chemicals and other toxicants, whether intentional or unintentional, should be understood prior to chemical treatment.  Other non-selective alterations of water quality, such as reducing dissolved oxygen levels or altering pH, could also have a deleterious impact on native fish, invertebrates, and other fauna or flora, and their potential harmful effects should therefore be evaluated thoroughly.

Note: Check state/provincial and local regulations for the most up-to-date information regarding permits for control methods. Follow all label instructions.

Remarks: This species is eaten by humans and used as bait for salmonids and walleye (Pflieger 1997). O'Brien et al. (2014) investigated ecological factors influencing recruitment of rainbow smelt in Lake Huron, and suggest that the primary drivers on recruitment were cannabalism by older smelt, availabilty of spawning habitat due to spring precipitation, and predation on adult smelt by lake trout. Feiner et al. (2015) examined recruitment dynamics of rainbow smelt in Lake Michigan, and found that significant variation in stock productivity over time had a strong influence on recruitment.

References: (click for full references)

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Author: Fuller, P., E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, T.H. Makled, and M. Neilson

Contributing Agencies:

Revision Date: 9/12/2019

Peer Review Date: 9/29/2015

Citation for this information:
Fuller, P., E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, T.H. Makled, and M. Neilson, 2020, Osmerus mordax (Mitchill, 1814): U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, and NOAA Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, Ann Arbor, MI, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/greatlakes/factsheet.aspx?speciesid=796&potential=n&type=0&hucnumber=, Revision Date: 9/12/2019, Peer Review Date: 9/29/2015, Access Date: 2/27/2020

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.