Fisheries Steering Committee frustrated with process to date

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Members of DIF&W’s Fisheries Steering Committee are frustrated with the lack of progress in preparation of new fisheries management plans. While the new big game management plans are nearing completion, the Fisheries Division staff has not even completed the initial assessments of each species, never mind the new 15-year management plans.

From my point of view, the fisheries planning process is deeply flawed. For each big game animal, a special steering committee of individuals representing a variety of groups was organized to work with the Wildlife Division staff in preparation of draft management plans. Both the initial assessments and the draft management plans then went to a larger Steering Committee, which has been actively engaged in the preparation of the final plans.

For the new fisheries management plans, the Fisheries Division staff are preparing the assessments and plans, with no steering committees to work with them, and those plans will then go to a Steering Committee for comment. As you can see, there is a much bigger commitment to work with interested groups and individuals in the Wildlife Division then the Fisheries Division.

Please do not consider this an attack on the new Fisheries Division Director, Francis Brautigam. Francis was one of the best regional fisheries biologists, working in southern Maine, before he took this position, and I am hopeful that he will make significant changes in the organization of and ways the division works as time goes on.

But there is no better place to make those decision than in the new plans. And that’s where the Fisheries Steering Committee comes in. Sadly, only half the Steering Committee showed up for the group’s last meeting on January 6. But I have to acknowledge that those who didn’t attend didn’t miss much.

There were no assessments to review, no plans to discuss. Brautigam and Joe Overlock provided updates about the department’s work on the assessments and plans, and spent quite a bit of time explaining the differences in the planning processes for fisheries and game animals and reviewing the “key components” of the planning process. Francis did say that most species assessments are drafted, but not finalized. He said the agency still needs to determine their research needs for each species.

And he reported that they are turning away from a statewide management approach to focus on regional plans, hoping to solicit more public input on the regional level. “In the fish world, we manage water by water,” he said, “in thousands of waters.”

Many of us see that as a mistake. Thank goodness we don’t manage game animals that way! And that kind of management and thinking has created a terribly complex and confusing set of fishing rules. There is actually a bill in the legislature this session to reorganize the fisheries division so that it matches the organizational structure of the wildlife division.

Francis said it has been difficult to determine the public’s desires and needs when it comes to fisheries management. And he also noted, “We don’t have any way to manage data.” He’s hoping to upgrade a position in his division to focus more effort on this. “The old plan was loaded with data but wasn’t used. The plans lacked specific guidance for regions,” he reported.

In particular, Francis hopes to make the plans more responsive to and useful for anglers. I must say they’ve got a long way to go to achieve that goal. We did give him some advice on how to reach out to more anglers – including using the department’s list of licensed anglers. I also suggested a survey of nonresident anglers who no longer fish in Maine. And we suggested engaging local, regional, and state groups representing sportsmen and women.

That’s when we were told that Brittany Humphrey is working on a plan to bring back those nonresidents who have given up fishing here. I’m trying to find out the status of that plan now, and will let you know if the agency is willing to share it with us.

DIF&W contracted with Mark Duda and Resource Management, a national consulting firm that has worked in all 50 states, to do surveys of anglers, hunters, and the public, on many issues. But Francis said he questions the results, and thinks they did not survey enough avid anglers.

Steering Committee member Sherry Oldham, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council and President of the Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen’s Association, emphasized that “conservation is most important” and this should be emphasized in the plans. She also noted we should have a separate assessment for the Heritage Waters, where brook trout and char are protected.

A lot of discussion centered on the concept of turning most of the decisions, and focusing the plans, on a regional level. “I am very reluctant to turn over planning for resources of state and national significance to regions,” said Don Kleiner, a Steering Committee members and lobbyist for the Maine Professional Guides Association. Don cited sea run trout, Bluebacks, Sebago salmon, and Heritage fish as particular concerns.

I was pleased that Francis, and Nate Webb who chairs these meetings, let me speak at the meeting. I tried to give them some good advice, and noted that we’ve made lots of stocking mistakes over the last 150 years, and our highest priority must be to protect our remaining native fisheries. Twice as many bass, introduced both legally and illegally, are now caught by anglers than brook trout. “Bass are the second most important (fishery) resource in our state,” said Francis.

I’ve been bothered for years that almost all of the Fisheries Division funding is spent on stocked fish, growing, stocking, and managing them. I see that as a major problem, and would like to have the budget more evenly balanced between stocked and native/wild fish.

Their current standard for stocking a water is does the native fishery there meet angler demands and desires. That’s the wrong way to approach, protect, and manage our remaining native fish, in my opinion. Yes, the fish should come first!

Francis talked a bit about his successful effort to restore wild landlocked salmon in Sebago Lake, and he deserves great credit for that achievement, which was not easy. He actually faced strong opposition to his decision to reduce stocking.

I told the group that Maine needs to step up and protect our native fish in the Allagash Waterway, but Francis said he’d rely on regional fisheries biologists for advice on that. These are the same biologists who have opted not to protect those fish.

And most troubling, Francis said the agency could not hold regional biologists to the plan and policies, and they would have the option of ignoring them.

As the meeting was nearing an end, Francis said, “I’m shooting for a process and plan people will feel comfortable about, and not a plan that’s put on the shelf and ignored for the next 15 years.” We can only hope he is successful in achieving this important goal.

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