Brook trout bill continues to stir debate

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The effort at the legislature to extend protection of Heritage brook trout continues to stir debate, focused on disappointment with the opposition and testimony of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Today I’m sharing testimony that Gary Corson provided to the IFW Committee after the hearing. Gary was listening to the hearing online and was deeply disappointed in the department’s testimony offered by Fisheries Division Director Francis Brautigam.

Gary was the driving force behind the successful effort by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, when I was SAM’s executive director, and its Fisheries Initiative Committee to win legislative approval for SAM’s bill to name our native brook trout the state’s Heritage fish and protect them in nearly 300 waters that had never been stocked. DIF&W also opposed that bill.

Ironically, Chandler Woodcock was the Senator who sponsored SAM’s Heritage bill, and now he’s DIF&W’s Commissioner, disappointing many of us with his opposition to the new bill.

Here’s Gary’s testimony, with some good information about the history of this issue and the errors in DIF&W’s testimony against 1018, sponsored by Representative Russell Black at my request.

Gary Corson’s Testimony

Senator Cyrway, Representative Duchesne, and distinguished members on the Joint Standing Committee of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. My name is Gary Corson, I'm from New Sharon Maine. I made my living guiding hunters and anglers in northern Maine for almost 30-years, and I've been involved with the State Heritage Fish Waters legislation and the management of those waters from day-1. Maine's State Heritage Fish Waters (SHFW) represent 96% of the remaining wild and native brook trout (BKT) populations found in lakes and ponds, and 100% of the remaining native arctic char (BBC) populations in the U.S. Truly a gem for the State.

I didn't attend the public hearing, I apologize, and I take full responsibility for that. To be honest, I was under the impression (maybe it was wishful thinking) the Department intended to testify NFNA, and would suggest to the committee that they could meet the intent of the bill with rule-making, making LD 1018 unnecessary. I would have supported that position.

I did listen to the public hearings last Thursday, (as I do every Tuesday and Thursday the committee meets). I remember hearing Senator Cyrway ask if there were any opponents; of course there was a short time lapse after his announcement so I knew someone was in opposition. I told my wife "I hope this isn't Francis". To put it bluntly, I was shocked when I heard the Department was in opposition, and when I heard the testimony I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing. Even today I find it hard to accept the Francis Brautigam I know, prepared the Departments testimony on LD 1018 and actually believes it.

Throughout the testimony the Department acknowledges their commitment to manage Maine's heritage waters responsibly. Throughout their testimony they acknowledge the protection the bill offers would affect very few anglers, and yet they caution against adopting the legislation citing concerns of public angst and administrative challenges.

As mentioned, I've monitored the Committees public hearings, work sessions reports etc. from home since January. I've actually been doing it for the last few years. I've heard numerous reports, testimony, etc. from Department staff including Judy Camuso and Jim Connolly with a very clear message that management of the fish and wildlife resources of the State should be based on good data,  science and biology. The Department's testimony and position on LD 1018  seems contrary to that message. Why? THIS IS THE BIGGER ISSUE HERE.

The following information is my attempt to addresses some of the Departments testimony that I found somewhat misleading (not necessarily false, but not as relevant to LD 1018 as it was made out to be.)

(italic/underlined = text taken from the Departments testimony, my comments follow.)

1. "may create challenges, including public acceptance; similar to that which existed during the inception of the original heritage water legislation"

As I remember the original legislation and I was very active and involved with the enactment of the SHFW legislation, the opposition to LD 1131 in 2005 came from the Department, not the public. (Not unlike LD 1018)

In the end, the Department testified in support  of the LD 1131, but in reality they opposed it being in statute. (Or at least some did.) Personally I believe there are a number of staff within fisheries to this day that never bought into the SHFW legislation. I suspect this may have something to do with the Departments opposition to LD 1018.

2. "Long Lake in St Agatha was initially identified for listing as a State Heritage Fish Water"

To my knowledge, Long Lake never qualified for addition to the SHFW. IF&W considered Long Lake a wild BKT ("B") water because it had a wild BKT population and the lake hadn't been stocked with BKT in over 25 years. When the 2005 Heritage legislation was repealed and replaced in 2014 to include B list waters (ie. waters that hadn't been stocked in at least 25-years) Long Lake didn't qualify because it had/has an active LLS stocking program.

 3. "ongoing stocking of salmon in this large lake did not pose a risk"

This statement is a  clever attempt of wordsmithing that infers  there's nothing wrong with stocking over wild BKT. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH. While  the statement is true, in that the stocking program is very unlikely to eradicate the BKT population, it certainly would  not be considered as something in the best interest of the wild BKT fishery by most fisheries professionals. Stocking LLS means smelts, and, the majority of LLS waters allow the use and possession of live fish as bait. Both are acknowledged threats to wild and native BKT and BBC populations in this State. Stocking over wild fish may increase predation; may cause loss or crowding of habitat at certain stages of life, and/or create competition between parr, fry, yearlings, etc, for that habitat; it has the potential to interfere with spawning; increases the possibility of disease; accidental stockings; etc, etc, etc.

Of course all of this, in the case of Long Lake is moot. As mentioned in the comment above, Long Lake was never on, or considered a candidate for, the Heritage list, because it simply didn't qualify. The Long Lake reference brings nothing of consequence to this discussion.

 4. "New introductions represent a real threat to the conservation of Maine’s native and wild cold water fisheries. I make this point to clarify that the Department has been actively engaged in and has devoted considerable resources to tackle this complex issue"

It would be interesting to get an update/report from the Department  on how, or if, their efforts have in fact reduced or lessened the problems associated with the introduction of competing species. It's fairly common knowledge that introduced species continue to be one of the greatest threats facing Maine's wild and native BKT and BBC fisheries today.

 5. "The ecological risk associated with allowing anglers to use live bait fish in streams is inherently low"

It's inherently low because currently anglers  seldom use the method. But, the fact remains that it's legal to use and possess live fish as bait in tributaries that flow directly into some of the last wild/native BKT and BBC waters in the Country.

 6. "The Department’s bait dealer inspection program and regular contact with the bait industry has generally demonstrated overall good compliance in terms of the species that are commercially sold as bait; a low incidence of non-legal fish are mixed in with baitfish that are sold"

Bait dealers are far and few between during the open waters season. I'm not aware of any bait shops open during the open water fishing season. When you consider there are only 9 SHFW open to ice fishing, the Departments bait dealer inspections with good compliance, should not be considered reliable/dependable information as it applies to LD 1018.

Almost all bait used in the open water season is trapped by individual anglers. While the majority of bait dealers may be well qualified in bait-fish/fish identification, it's doubtful that the average angler would posses those same qualifications. To suggest that the compliance factor with bait dealers in the winter months is comparable to the average angler trapping his or her own bait, would be misleading and it's certainly not documented. This statement provides little in the way of  support for the Department's opposition to LD 1018.

7. "Depending on how the term “tributary” is defined in this bill could certainly influence how existing and potential future stocking programs are affected by this proposed legislation"

Tributary is defined in the fishing lawbook (Title 12,§10001-66). The definition seems straight forward, making this statement very confusing. The Departments concern for future stocking programs in a legislative document that addresses some of the Country's last lake and pond dwelling BKT and BBC populations is very disappointing. It almost seem like they're committed to management of the State's wild and native fisheries, and BKT are a priority, as long as it doesn't interfere with their stocking programs. (The very reason the SHFW legislation was proposed and enacted in 2005.)

8. "will add additional pages to the fishing law book, contrary to ongoing simplification reform"

In many cases (ie. there are 278 SHFW managed with a NLFAB restriction) a simple "and Tributaries" added to these particular lakes and ponds special rule listings would suffice. There are over 50 SHFW listed in the lawbook that include tributaries in the listing already.

Note: "and tributaries" would not work for 282 SHFW that are restricted  to FFO, ALO, and AFO unless the tributary were managed with the same restrictions as these particular lakes or ponds. Another solution could be a new S-code listing (ie. S-X the use and possession of live fish as bait in Tributaries to SHFW is prohibited.) I started a review of the SHFW (done alphabetically, and between A and D, 20% of the waters had no tributaries. It's very doubtful that enacting LD 1018 would add pages to the lawbook and/or cause the administrative challenges mentioned in the Department's testimony.

9. "The potential resource benefits, administrative challenges, and lost public use opportunities associated with this bill should be carefully explored to ensure an outcome accepted by the public"

The only lost public use I see, is anglers will no longer be allowed to  use and possess live fish as bait on tributaries to the SHFW. (Which according to parts of the testimony nobody uses anyway.)  The Departments concern with the loss of public use opportunities on the SHFW tributaries suggests their support for that use. None of this instills a great deal of confidence in the Departments ability to responsibly manage  the SHFW, and it certainly doesn't follow the message that management of the fish and wildlife resources in Maine should be based on  good data, science and biology.

I appreciate the Committee allowing me an opportunity to provide this information. Especially since I chose not to attend the public hearing. I do plan on attending the work session and would be more than willing to answer any questions Committee members may have.

Thank you. Gary  Corson

 

 

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