smelt, common name for a small, slender fish of the family Osmeridae. Most species are marine, but some ascend freshwater streams to spawn and others are landlocked in lakes. The rainbow or American smelt, Osmerus mordax, averages 10 in. (25 cm) in length and 1 lb (.45 kg) in weight. It is valued for its delicious, fragrant flesh, although its feeding habits are destructive and sometimes cannibalistic. The Pacific rainbow smelt, O. dentex, is found in Alaska and NE Asia. The candlefish or eulachon, Thaleichthys pacificus, a fish of the smelt family found from Oregon to Alaska, is named for the fact that it is so fat at spawning time that when dried and strung on a wick it can be burned as a primitive candle.
The top smelt, Atherinops affinis, and jack smelt are Pacific silversides of the family Atherinidae, which belong to a different order. The deep-sea smelts, family Bathylagidae, and herring smelts, family Argentinidae, are closely related to each other but also belong to a different order (Argentiniformes); they were formerly classed with the true smelts.
True smelts are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Actinopterygii, order Osmeriformes, family Osmeridae.
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