Fisheries biologists criticize stocking of Portage Lake

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 A proposal by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to stock Portage Lake has drawn criticism from some of the department’s fisheries biologists, a very unusual situation. Normally these biologists avoid criticizing each other’s plans.

Here’s the proposal as described by the department:

Stock up to 1,000 fall yearling brook trout into Portage Lake, the shallowest of the eight major lakes of the Fish River Chain in northern Maine. Since the production of fall yearling brook trout has been capped, we would reallocate fish from other programs and utilize any LD fish that might be available. Therefore, the full complement of 1,000 fish may not be stocked every year. This proposal developed from discussions among regional staff after the winter creel survey conducted during January-March 2015.

At about the same time a request from the Portage Lake Association and the Town of Portage Select Board was received regarding stocking Portage with catchable trout, citing the successful brook trout stocking program at Madawaska Lake in northern Maine. The groups’ interests lie in providing better fishing to Town residents and increasing use of the lake.

Criticism

Perhaps the most significant criticism came from Merry Gallagher, the department’s lead brook trout biologist. Here’s what Merry wrote:

“I can’t support this stocking proposal unless sterilized fish are used…. I can’t support your proposal for Portage Lake as is because you are proposing to stock hatchery brook trout over a remaining wild component in the North zone. Since this is a previous “B list” water and there are other Heritage Waters in the system, I think all attempts to increase wild recruitment and alleviate current threats should be a primary strategy.”

Another fisheries biologist wrote that “the stocking proposal states that ‘stocked brook trout from Portage Lake would have limited access to Round Pond’. Round Pond is on the State Heritage Fish Water list. There is also unfettered fish passage to Soldier Pond, a State Heritage Fish Water, located downstream from Portage Lake. Whether they are stocked directly or indirectly, the integrity of state heritage waters should not be jeopardized by hatchery-reared fishes, and this stocking proposal will do just that.

“It appears there is considerable social pressure surrounding this stocking proposal. Understandably, anglers want to catch fish (i.e. brook trout) close to home. However, it seems that there must be other smaller waters (e.g. town ponds, farm ponds, small public waters, quarries, etc.) in close proximity that will provide much higher returns and not threaten State Heritage Fish Waters or other self-sustaining salmonid populations. Even if other viable stocking waters are unavailable, this stocking should not happen. It’s not worth the risk or scrutiny.”

Support

To be fair, there was also lots of support from fisheries staff. One wrote, “I concur with the proposal. This lake has been heavily stocked in the past and re-instituting the program with FY could provide significant fishing opportunities for the large number of residents on and around the lake. Looks like a few of the other lakes in the drainage have had some stocking history as well. I don’t believe there is a significant risk of these fish intermingling with other BKT waters in the drainage.”

 

Another wrote, “Great proposal. I think that the use of FY brook trout in Portage Lake would be a great use of these fish for providing a put and take fishery that will likely increase use on this underutilized water. Additional use may also generate increased harvest of the abundant LLS population there.”


Local folks also weighed in, including David Pierce, who wrote, “
I am the chairman of the Portage Lake select board and a member of the Portage Lake Association board of directors. I have been working with the local biologists in hopes of implementing a stocking program.  There are many interested locals and camp owners as well as myself and family.  It would definitely also draw people from at least an hour drive away which will definitely help the local economy. The local store owner even said he would get set up to carry live bait. The native trout and salmon are very skinny and limited. Healthy stocked trout are needed to make a good local winter fishery that is very accessible to the public.”

 

Other Comments


Other comments from the public were strongly expressed, including this from Evan Roy: “
 I would like to express my opinion on the proposed stocking of Portage Lake. I think that this is an extremely stupid idea. The fish river chain of lakes already has a fine population of wild brook trout (maybe not Portage, but Eagle, Square, Cross, and Long do). The state has already made plenty of mistakes by stocking bodies of water that connect to some of the best wild brook trout waters left in this country. If anything, we should be discontinuing stocking of several bodies of water across the state. I have seen the brook trout that the state stocks in the lower portion of the Fish River below the Fish River falls, and it saddens me dearly to see the trash (stocked brook trout) that the state is dumping into our waters. These fish being stocked often have very poor genetics, carry diseases, and compete with the native fish that are already present in the watershed. 

 

“There is already plenty of opportunity in Aroostook county for anglers to harvest brook trout from put and take lakes/ponds. The state is way too concerned with increasing angler success rate. People who come to the areas of western and northern Maine don't come here to catch stocked brook trout, they come here for the opportunity to catch native/wild brook trout and other wild salmonids. I have been very disappointed and embarrassed by the actions of Maine's inland fisheries and wildlife over the past few years. Why in the world would you want to jeopardize a great wild brook trout fishery for a sub-par put and take fishery? Soldier Pond in Wallagrass is one of my favorite places to fly fish for Brook trout and salmon, and I don't want that stocked garbage anywhere near that great fishery.”

 

Corson and Reardon

 

Two of the more thoughtful responses came from Gary Corson of New Sharon, a long-time champion of our native brook trout and a retired fishing guide, and Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited. Gary presented a detailed 5 page response including questions and concerns. It’s too long to present here but it was very well done and hopefully is getting lots of attention at DIFW.

I will share Jeff’s comments here, and they too are thoughtful and important. Here’s what Jeff wrote:

I have reviewed the Department’s proposed stocking changes for 2018 and am submitting these comments on behalf of Trout Unlimited.  Our primary concern is whether new proposals will conflict with protection and management of wild and native trout; an additional concern is whether these proposals will enhance opportunity for anglers.

Trout Unlimited has no concerns about the proposed new stocking of lake trout in Levenseller Pond and brook trout in Lower Shaw Pond.  These proposed programs will have little or no impact on wild salmonid fisheries in the stocked water or upstream and downstream waters.  Stocking of lake trout in Levenseller Pond will enhance an already popular put and take brook trout fishery. Stocking of brook trout in Lower Shaw Pond will provide a new stocked trout fishery where no wild trout fishery exists.  Any impacts on wild trout resources are very small, and similar to existing stocking programs in connected and nearby waters.  Neither Levenseller Pond nor Lower Shaw Pond has an existing wild salmonid fishery, and immediately adjacent upstream and downstream waters also lack wild brook trout.  The only potential interactions with wild trout would appear to be in the Dead River downstream of Lower Shaw Pond, and as the proposal notes, this water already receives stocked landlocked salmon and brook trout.

The proposal to stock Portage Lake raises more concerns.  The proposal notes a local desire for more angling opportunity, and limits on meeting this demand with wild brook trout production due to competing species, warm water temperature, and eutrophication.

Information in and attachments to the stocking proposal indicate that Portage Lake supports an existing “principal fishery” for wild brook trout, as well as landlocked salmon and rainbow smelt.  The “Lake Survey Map” on the Department’s website for Portage Lake (http://www.maine.gov/ifw/docs/lake-survey-maps/aroostook/portage_lake.pdf)  also indicates principal fisheries for brook trout, landlocked salmon, and rainbow smelt, and notes that “adequate brook trout spawning and rearing areas are present.”  Upstream, Fish River Lake and the Fish River between Fish River Lake and Portage Lake are managed for wild brook trout.  Downstream, St. Froid Lake and the Fish River—as well as other downstream lakes in the Fish River Chain--are managed for wild brook trout and wild and stocked salmon.  St. Froid Lake is described in its “Lake Survey Map” (http://www.maine.gov/ifw/docs/lake-survey-maps/aroostook/st_froid_lake.pdf) as “a sport fishery of statewide significance for salmon, lake trout and brook trout.”  The stocking proposal notes that “Today, there is no direct stocking of brook trout into the major lakes of the Fish River Chain,” and that stocking into nearby smaller lakes and ponds is quite limited. The closest stocked brook trout water is Moccasin Pond, 15 miles away, with an outlet that drains to the Fish River between Fish River Lake and Portage Lake.

It also seems unlikely that stocking of up to 1000 fall yearlings into a 2,500-acre lake will support a major increase in fishing opportunity. This stocking rate—less than 0.5 fish per acre—is much lower than the almost 2.5 brook trout per acre proposed for a new program at Little Shaw Pond or the more than 35 brook trout per acre that support the very popular put-and-take fishery at Levenseller Pond.  One thousand brook trout will be hard to find in a lake as large as Portage, particularly where they also have opportunity to move upstream and downstream into Fish River and beyond.  And these fish will be diverted from existing stocking programs in the region, so any increase in opportunity at Portage Lake will be offset by a reduction in fishing opportunity elsewhere.  (The proposal does not say where the stocking will be reduced to provide fish for the Portage Lake program.)  Particularly given other high-value salmonid fisheries nearby, it seems unlikely that this relatively low level of stocking will result in a major change in opportunity and use on Portage Lake.

Stocking of brook trout into Portage Lake represents a significant departure from a long-standing commitment to wild brook trout management in the Fish River Lakes.  The proposal does not include an assessment of anticipated movement of stocked brook trout from Portage Lake to adjacent waters that will continue to be managed for wild brook trout.  The assessment of possible effects is limited to Portage Lake, its tributaries, the immediately adjacent reaches of the Fish River. There is no discussion of potential effects on upstream and downstream lakes.  It may be that conditions in Portage Lake now preclude wild trout management—although the presence of wild brook trout in the 2015 winter creel surveys suggests the catch rate for wild brook trout is only a little bit lower than the catch rate for wild salmon in Portage Lake, and indicates that natural reproduction continues to occur at some level.

Rather than move ahead with this proposal, we believe it would be more appropriate to take the time to re-evaluate a fisheries management plan for brook trout for the Fish River and Fish River Lakes above Fish River Falls. It may be that conditions have changed enough in this watershed to justify the switch from wild trout to stocked trout management in Portage Lake, but that should be evaluated in the context of potential impacts on existing wild brook fisheries throughout the Fish River Chain, of existing winter and summer fisheries for wild and stocked brook trout in the region, and an assessment of the lost opportunity from reduced stocking elsewhere to support a new Portage Lake brook trout stocking program.

Conclusion

As you can tell from the comments of Jeff and others, this is about more than just the stocking of a single water. And the decision will indicate how concerned the department is about our native brook trout, and how committed they are to protecting and enhancing our native brookies.

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