Brook trout plan unites legislators, bait dealers, anglers, and fisheries biologists.

NOTE

Thanks to all who completed my first Sportsmen’s Say Survey, located on on website, www.georgesmithmaine.com. The survey question was:

Should Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife do more to protect native and wild brook trout, including banning the use of live fish as bait on wild brook trout waters in order to reduce the chance of an introduction of new competing fish species in those waters?

Sixty three percent of respondents answered yes while 37 percent said no. It’s not too late to answer this question, if you would like to do that. The question will remain on the website for a while.

SECOND NOTE

A very interesting episode of Wildfire is now available here. Our guest John Boland, retired last year after a long career at DIF&W. This was John’s first interview since his retirement and he had a lot to say about Maine’s fisheries.

Legislature Gets Brook Trout Briefing

The long-running contentious battle over the management of wild brook trout waters may be over. This afternoon, members of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife were briefed on a comprehensive new policy and plan – and they loved it.

Dena DeGraaf, brook trout and salmon biologist for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, presented the plan, titled “Managing Maine’s Brook Trout – Protecting Native and Wild Populations.” After wrestling with the issue last year, the IF&W Committee directed DIF&W to prepare a comprehensive policy and plan for all wild brook trout waters along with a list of waters to be governed by that plan.

The proposed plan offers lots of background information on brook trout management, biology, and research, as well as a strategy to protect native and wild brookies. It should be available on DIF&W’s website soon. But it’s what is not in the plan that sealed the deal. More about this in a minute.

The protection of native and wild brook trout was a hot topic for most of my 18 years as Executive Director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. In 2005, a SAM bill sponsored by then-Senator Chandler Woodcock was enacted designating native brook trout as a State Heritage Fish. The bill focused on trout in waters that have never been stocked the “A” list.

DIF&W evaluated over 1000 waters to create the A list of waters and ended up recommending that 305 waters be designated. The 2005 law also prohibited stocking and the use of live fish as bait in those waters. And the law directed DIF&W to review brook trout waters that had not been stocked in 25 years and put them on the so-called “B” list.  The agency reported back in 2006 that 180 wild trout waters deserved to be on the B list with special recognition and protection. But no action was taken at that time to protect the trout in those waters.

Ever since, brook trout advocates have been fighting with bait dealers, ice anglers, and some sporting camp owners and guides, over the use of live fish as bait on B waters.

In 2013, DIF&W staff spent 1000 hours reviewing A and B lists as part of an internal review of justifications for removing waters from the A and B lists. Only the legislature can remove waters from the A list.

DIF&W now has a list 16 waters that fisheries staff think should be removed from the A list. Some were accidentally stocked by DIF&W. Others have limited habitat. This recommendation will go through rule-making in 2014 and then be presented to the legislature for action in 2015.

Collaboration and Challenges

DeGraaf reported that DIF&W has been working with Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited on surveys of remote trout ponds. “It’s a very good collaborative effort that we hope to continue,” he said. He also noted that Region E has the most waters on the lists: 156 A waters and 93 B waters. “I am surprised that Aroostook didn’t have the most,” he said, noting that most of the native and wild brook trout waters are in the western areas of the state.

DIF&W’s new report and plan includes a lot of great information including a table showing the wide range of threats to native and wild brook trout from Georgia to Maine.  For flowing waters, land management is the biggest problem, DeGraaf noted. For lakes and ponds, the biggest problem is competing species.

Beaver dams also are problems because they isolate the trout and fragment the landscape. The report includes a photo of DeGraaf with a big Muskie – demonstrating that a photo is worth a thousand words.

DeGraaf emphasized that DIF&W – and the agency’s working groups on brook trout and bait fish – will continue working on these issues. “We’re not done,” he said.

In the new report, recommendations from the Brook Trout Working Group and the Baitfish Working Group are outlined, including the possibility of moving to a system where only licensed dealers could capture and sell bait fish. Identified needs include better fish ID skills on the part of everyone and more educational materials for anglers and bait dealers. Potential changes could require further limits on the species that can be used as live bait and a ban on the personal storage of baitfish on some watersheds.

Wild Trout Management Plan

Here are the key components of the new Wild Trout Management Plan.

Merge the A and B lists and retitle them the State Heritage Fish Waters. Add the 10 Arctic char waters to the list. The combined list will include 340 waters from the A list (minus the 16 DIF&W will propose for removal) and 235 from the B list.

“Recognizing the high value of traditional sport fishing for other species where they coexist with brook trout,” DeGraaf reported that 38 wild trout waters will not be proposed for the State Heritage Fish Waters due to the use of live fish as bait there (34 waters) and the presence of other species (4 waters), but “we will continue to have protective policies for brook trout in those waters.”

And this was how DIF&W ultimately – and cleverly – brought everyone to the table. They set aside all of the waters that were the basis for the battles over the use of live-fish-as-bait, including the Allagash Waterway and the Fish River lakes.

As Steve Brooke, longtime member of SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee, said at last week’s briefing on the plan, “This takes out many of the unknowns. I complement Dana on his presentation. The other thing I like is the way you have combined the two lists by creating a Heritage pool that we can add to and requiring the legislature to remove waters is also very good.” DeGraaf was quick to share the credit with many others.

Deputy Commissioner Andrea Erskine, in response to a question about why DIF&W isn’t yet making the lists available, said it is premature to offer them. She wants to win support for the plan and policy, first, a very wise move. So it will be a while before we get the lists, including the list of 39 brook trout waters that will not be protected. But it isn’t too hard to create that list yourself.  These are the waters that currently allow live fish and bait, with a few others that may have been stocked over the years.

The technical changes required in the law are still a bit confusing. Essentially B list waters will be automatically in the Heritage list and governed by the same rules. They are going to treat native and wild trout waters, A and B lists, the same, call them Heritage Waters, and they will be governed by the restrictions currently in statute for A list waters. Additions to the list will require a rule-making process. Removal from the list will require both a rule-making process and legislative approval. Simply put, we will be adding 235 waters to the protected list.

Conclusion

This is a major achievement for DIF&W, and a good reflection on the people who have been working on this for so long including SAM’s FIC, bait dealers, guides, sporting camp owners, and others.

And as Erskine so ably put it, “We have to give our biological staff credit. They’ve been working toward this for their entire careers.”

 

 

 

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.