ELLSWORTH, Maine — Gary Fortier leaned over a bucket, gently grabbed a flopping landlocked salmon, and ceremonially ushered in a new era on Thursday afternoon when he released the fish into Branch Lake.
“Slippery little buggers,” the longtime city councilor said with a laugh. “I’ll be back to get you next year.”
The stocking was the first at Branch Lake since 1999, when the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife discontinued its stocking program because of inadequate public access to the popular Hancock County water.
In all, about 1,350 one-year-old salmon — six to eight inches in length — were stocked in the lake on Thursday. Most of those were released far from shore by DIF&W assistant fisheries biologist Gregory Burr and his colleague, Joe Overlock, to cut down on avian predation that may have occurred had all of the fish been re-leased into the shallow water near the landing.
According to DIF&W policy, lakes are not stocked if the general public does not enjoy fair and equitable access, as compared with landowners on the lake.
When the Hanson’s Landing property changed hands in the late 1990s, the new owner did not want to operate a public boat ramp. The closing of the best public landing on the lake in 1999 was the catalyst that led to a decade of proposals, counter-proposals, and an eventual solution that both state and city officials lauded.
City officials in Ellsworth have long balked at allowing the state to construct another public landing at the lake, citing pollution and invasive plants that could be transported by boat into a lake that serves as Ellsworth’s public water supply.
“There were times when it was very contentious. We’ve been called many different things by many different people, but the city dug its heels in,” Fortier said.
‘The difference [between now and a decade ago] is that we were a partner on this. Ten years ago I would have told you I expected the state to force it down our throat,” Fortier said. “But opinions have changed. We have set all of our personal differences aside and come to the table [to answer the question] ‘What’s best for the lake?’”
Since Hanson’s Landing was closed in 1999, the number of anglers who visit the lake has dropped, which in turn has cost area businesses money, Burr maintains.
According to DIF&W fishing surveys, fewer than half as many angler-days are spent on Branch Lake now as were spent there a decade ago.
Burr along with Department of Conservation and Ellsworth officials spent a decade trying to find a solution to the stalemate.
In February the city council approved an agreement with the state that will allow the state to build a new public landing off the Happytown Road.
Ellsworth will have administrative authority over the ramp, including the inspection of boats for invasive plants.
Burr said that the landing proposal is working its way through city and state permitting processes. He expects construction to begin later in late summer or early fall and said the ramp should become operational in the early spring of 2011.
“We got discouraged many times, and said, ‘I’m never going to be able to stock salmon here again,’” Burr said. “But then a couple years ago we said, you know, let’s just go to them and say, ‘We’ve got a lot of common ground here. We have the same concerns as you. We want to protect the water quality here. We certainly want to protect the drinking water quality. What can we do to work with you folks? What concessions can we make to get this launch site in?”
Among the compromises that the state made: Moving the site of the new launch site farther away from the city’s water intake pipe.
At times the relationship between state and city officials was strained, but on Thursday, both sides were eager to celebrate their new-found common ground.
Councilor John Moore of Ellsworth was among those who released a few dozen landlocked salmon at the site of the former Hanson’s Landing.
“Would you say this is a better than average day at work?” Moore asked Burr as they released fish into the lake.
“Yes, it is,” Burr replied.
“A guy’s got to have a few days like this,” Moore said.