Do you think you know a lot about Maine’s inland fisheries? So did I until I read Suzanne Auclair’s amazing new book. The Origin, Formation & History of Maine’s Inland Fisheries Division is a thorough, often-in-their-own-words, fascinating examination of the important and historical work of our state’s fisheries biologists.
This book is a treasure and will be the place future fisheries managers and anglers go to understand the state’s complicated evolution of fish and fisheries management. Suzanne spent two long years creating this book, and here’s how she describes it:
While some of us at one time or another have entertained the thought of composing a history of the Fisheries Division because of its importance to the State of Maine, the task of gathering decades of work and life into a single form appeared daunting and so it was never done. We remember first generation biologist Ken Warner’s wish for it, but his time ran out. This time it clicked. Everything aligned – and remained aligned – so that it, indeed, became possible to record, in one place, the origin, formation, and history of the Division.
Some of the chapters are written by the biologists, and some by Suzanne based on interviews with and about the biologist. But the stories are always their stories, and often in their words. Suzanne is married to the only living member of our first generation of fisheries professionals, Roger Auclair, and his chapter is very interesting, to put it mildly.
In the book, we learn about a lot of the early research that resulted in more protective measures for fish. And some of the issues raised by our earliest fisheries biologists are still being debated today. Here’s one, in Roger Auclair’s own words:
I have never agreed to using live fish as bait, which is a danger because it can result in unwanted introductions and cause all sorts of problems. But it’s so well entrenched world-wide, you can’t even talk about it. It’s all about business.
Well, Roger, we’re still talking about it! I found this, also from Roger, to be interesting.
I would hate to see it come to the point where people don’t catch fish to eat anymore, where they just catch fish for the pleasure of it. Catch-and-release, over and over again, is not good for the fish. It’s very stressful and it’s an amoral act… Kill them and eat them, or leave them alone.
Dennis McNeish is one of many biologists who expressed his concern about the introduction of non-native fish species into Maine waters.
The most serious challenge facing sport fishery management in Maine today is the spread of non-native fish species and their impact on native species. This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on since the 19th century when the newly appointed fish commissioners elected to transfer, for example, black bass, a non-native species, into Maine… A companion problem is the spread of native species beyond their historic range within the state. Examples include illegal stockings of rainbow smelt, a variety of minnow species, white perch, yellow perch, and chain pickerel.
Denny was also one of many biologists who complained about the influence of “special interest groups and some well-connected individuals” in fisheries management decisions. “These groups include but are not limited to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Trout Unlimited. I believe these groups and certain individuals have gained increasing access and influence through their connections with the political arm of the Department, i.e. the commissioner’s office,” wrote Denny.
Ironically, some of the most positive changes in fisheries management cited in this book were championed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and it’s Fishing Initiative Committee during my 18 years as SAM’s executive director.
For example, several of the biologists cited the move to greater protection of wild and native brook trout. “Because Maine is now home to over 90 percent of the wild brook trout ponds remaining in the U.S., state legislation was enacted that directs a greater public focus on our wild brook trout in lakes and ponds,” wrote Peter Bourque.
That legislation was proposed by SAM! And sponsored by then State Senator Chandler Woodcock, now DIF&W’s Commissioner.
As a great admirer of fisheries biologist Forrest Bonney, who wrote the definitive book on Maine’s wild and native brook trout, I highlighted practically all of his chapter. It’s fascinating to learn, based on his own research, how the thinking changed over time, always moving toward less stocking and a greater focus on protection.
For example, Forrest reported on Commissioner Bucky Owen’s quality fishing initiative, “to impose restrictive regulations on waters that had the biological potential to produce quality fisheries if harvest were limited. The proposal included, for the first time in Maine, several catch-and-release waters… I was… able to document a statistically significant decline in the proportion of old-age brook trout over time, thereby providing justification for restrictive regulations to restore older-age fish in many of our waters.”
Former Commissioner Bill Vail, one of my all-time favorite commissioners, who insisted on keeping his door open to any visitor (and yes, I visited – and pestered him – quite often), wrote the book’s introduction. “The State of Maine has always been a place where most fish stories are actually true stories,” wrote Bill. Thanks for sticking up for our veracity, Bill!
I must thank Matt Scott, who began his career in state government as a fisheries biologist in the Belgrade Region, for buying and sending me this book. I will leave you with Matt’s final comment, in his chapter:
I pose the question about sustainability for the coming ages. As a society are we going to continually be faced with habitat fragmentation? If we lose the aquatic habitat, then we lose the fishery. Therefore, I have to conclude: What is sustainability? It is becoming a significant challenge to all of us.