Better protection for native brook trout gets lots of support at legislature

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I was really pleased by the testimony and support of my bill to expand protection of our native brook trout in Maine’s Heritage waters. But the opposition of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was extremely disappointing.

Let’s start with the good news. LD 1018, sponsored by Representative Russell Black at my request, was supported by Maine Audubon, Trout Unlimited, the Maine Professional Guides Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, The Nature Conservancy, Emily Bastian who directed Maine Audubon’s remote trout pond surveys for 5 years, Bob Mallard a former fly fishing shop owner who now writes for and edits national fly fishing magazines, and other anglers who value these very special fish.

The bill would prohibit stocking fish in or using live fish as bait in tributaries to State Heritage Fish Waters where our native brook trout and arctic char are recognized and protected. This is not an unprecedented action. In 1965 the use or possession of live fish as bait was prohibited in all waters in Baxter State Park to prevent the introduction of new species.

The Heritage Waters list, and the initial list of nearly 300 waters where brook trout are protected, was an initiative of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine when I served SAM as its executive director and lobbyist. SAM’s terrific Fishing Initiative Committee led the way on that and other important fisheries bills and acts. Then-Senator Chandler Woodcock sponsored the bill for us and DIF&W opposed it. But we overcame that opposition and eventually they joined us in supporting the legislation.

 

The trout in ponds listed as Heritage Waters are only protected in those ponds, and not in the tributaries where they spawn, or where other fish may be stocked, or illegally or inadvertently introduced. And while the department cannot stock hatchery fish in those Heritage Waters, they can – and sometimes do – stock them in tributaries that give the stocked fish access to the protected ponds.

 

Testimony

 

I really appreciated the fact that supporters of this bill sat all afternoon as the IFW Committee heard other bills. The hearing on my bill didn’t start until 4 pm and lasted until almost 7 pm. Here’s some of the great testimony.

 

Bob Mallard provided an excellent history of the Heritage Waters legislation, and offered examples of problems in those Heritage waters. “Big Reed Pond, a State Heritage Fish Water and home to rare arctic char, was recently reclaimed due to an invasive smelt introduction,” Bob said. He also noted that former DIF&W Fisheries Division Director Mike Brown reported that rainbow smelt and creek chub were likely introduced into Big Reed in the late 1980s when anglers were targeting trout and char by jigging live bait in deep water, a practice that was legal at that time.

 

TU’s Jeff Reardon offered comprehensive testimony that included maps, state laws, and rules along with some interesting reports from DIF&W. One was published in 1959 about Slaughter Pond in Piscataquis Country, reporting “The present fly-fishing only regulation protects the pond by preventing the use of live fish as bait. Care should be taken to keep out other species of fish.” He also distributed a wonderful fishing story by a young man from Virginia. I’ll share that story with you later this week.

 

Tom Abello of the Nature Conservancy testified that DIF&W “has long recognized the risks posed by baitfish species to wild brook trout waters. Its current management plan for the species details the severe threats to brook trout waters which highlights baitfish additions.”

 

Maine Audubon’s new executive director, Andrew Beahm, made a strong case for the bill, reporting that “Maine contains over 97% of the remaining (native) brook trout lakes and ponds in the country and the most remaining intact watersheds of anywhere in the eastern United States. Consequently, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to protect these unique fish.”

                                                                                          

Andrew joined Emily Bastian in reporting on their very important survey of remote brook trout waters, a project that Audubon began in 2011 in collaboration with Trout Unlimited and DIF&W.

 

Emily testified that “this law does nothing more than prohibit IFW from doing what their own website and internal documents say is harmful to wild trout and Artic char.”  She noted that stocked fish and invasive shiners have been confirmed in the Rapid River, Rainbow Lake, Horseshoe Pond and other Heritage waters.

 

Which makes DIF&W’s testimony in opposition to the bill particularly troubling. Tomorrow I will report on their misleading and inaccurate testimony, along with sharply critical comments that have been directed at DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock since the hearing.

 

And now, I want to share my testimony on LD 1018 with you. Here it is.

 

            This bill takes the next important step in our effort to protect and enhance our native book trout, by offering additional protection in their tributaries.

            The Heritage Waters list, and the initial list of nearly 300 waters where brook trout were protected, was an initiative of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine when I served SAM as its executive director and lobbyist. SAM’s terrific Fishing Initiative Committee led the way on that and other important fisheries bills and acts. Then-Senator Chandler Woodcock sponsored the bill for us and DIF&W opposed it. But we overcame that opposition and eventually they joined us in supporting the legislation.

            The trout in ponds listed as Heritage Waters are only protected in those ponds, and not in the tributaries where they spawn, or where other fish may be stocked, or illegally or inadvertently introduced. And while the department cannot stock hatchery fish in those Heritage Waters, they can – and sometimes do – stock them in tributaries that give the stocked fish access to the protected ponds.

            We’ve made lots of stocking mistakes over the last 150 years. One of the worst was stocking hatchery trout in a lake that allowed them to access the Rapid River in the Rangeley Region. While the agency originally denied they’d done it, and then said it was a mistake that would not be repeated, they are still stocking hatchery trout in lower Richardson Lake, giving them access to the Rapid.

            This is truly unforgiveable. The Rapid was once our best native brook trout water, in my estimation and experience. Now it has bass that entered the river from the New Hampshire end, and hatchery brook trout that got into the river due to DIF&W’s stocking mistakes.

            “Brook Trout,” an amazing book written by Nick Karas and published in 1997, is an entertaining, informative, and at times discouraging book about North America’s brook trout. I recently re-read Nick’s book, to prepare for hearings on a couple of important brook trout bills at the legislature, including this one.

            There’s a lot of truth in the book. Consider this: “Despite the general deterioration of today’s environment over a great part of the brook trout’s original range, there’s still excellent fishing, some of it on par with that once possible in Maine, Nipogen, or the Laurentides. However, one has to travel north of the 49th parallel to find it. Several ecological niches in Canada allow brook trout populations within them to exhibit all of the potential characteristics of the species, those that few anglers in the United States ever see unless they leave their home waters.”

            I’ve been lucky to have fished three of those brook trout waters that Karas names: the Minipi River in Labrador and the Rupert and Leaf Rivers in Quebec. The Leaf is my favorite book trout water and I’ve fished there three times. I’d like to go again, but it costs $7500, and my wife reminds me that we can both go to Italy for three weeks for that! But the price does show you the value of great brook trout fishing, something we no longer enjoy here in Maine, to the detriment of our outdoor industry and rural communities.

            And here’s what happened to those huge brook trout once caught in the Rangeley Region, from Nick Karas’ book.

            “Consider the big brook trout in the Rangeley Lakes in Maine. A portion of the lake’s brook trout had probably developed a genetic penchant to reach weights of 10 pounds or more by the time the glacier cleared the state. Arctic charr were also trapped in the lake and its watershed as the last glacier receded.

            “Brook trout, with that unique gene-guided maximum size potential, fed on the inexhaustible supply of smaller bluebacks and grew to huge proportions. Another portion of the brook trout in the lake never grew larger than 4 or 5 pounds. Their presence was masked by the bigger fish, and they were thought to be the same fish that hadn’t yet become behemoths. Over a few centuries, maybe less, the big fish prospered and dominated (only in size – not in numbers) the other, coexisting brook trout. Some grew to as large as 12 pounds, and a few undocumented reports even set the upper limit at 15 pounds.

            “Then the Oquossic Fishing club goofed. It brought landlocked salmon eggs to a hatchery it had built on Mooselookmeguntic Lake and released the fry into Rangeley Lake. The landlocks ate the bluebacks down to the last one and the charr became extinct. Smelt were then introduced as a forage-fish substitute – but they ate brook trout eggs. Within 20 years, the big brookies were history.”

            This was one of many stocking mistakes we’ve made over the last 150 years. But it was a big one.

            Nick Karas’ history of brookies in Maine is also informative.            “The status of the brook trout population has changed dramatically since the turn of the century. The causes are the same in Maine as elsewhere. Most prominent is the change in habitat caused by lumbering and poor forestry practices. Lumber-road erosion into streams has destroyed many spawning sites and increased mean water temperatures because of increased runoff and loss of streamside cover. Add to this the growing dominance of agriculture, with its inherent pollution, especially on the coastal plain, and you have vanishing brook trout populations.

            “Add overfishing, compounded by the introduction of such non-native species as brown trout and rainbow trout, and brook trout have lost another round. Even worse has been the introduction of native species – lake trout, landlocked salmon, and smelt – into what was once exclusively brook trout habitat. The biggest single threat today is the unauthorized introduction of warm-water fishes, especially small-and largemouth bass. If this continues, brook trout will be relegated entirely to higher elevations and upper watersheds, as has been the case in many states in the fish’s southern range.”

            At a 2012 SAM conference on invasive fish, Merry Gallagher, DIF&W’s exceptional Fisheries Researcher, said, “The wild trout waters are a huge concern. There is no doubt about it. When bass show up, brook trout don’t stick around for any length of time.” Merry got that right.

            At that same conference, Nels Kramer, DIF&W Fisheries Biologist, said, “We will become Connecticut. We will end up with a homogeneous landscape, so there will be all species everywhere. It’s one of the things that makes Maine unique, to have the only species in a pond be brook trout. Unfortunately, every week there are reports of new introductions.” Precisely why we need this legislation, to do all we can to protect our remaining native brookies.

            Please, let’s use this bill to do that.

 

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