For the past few decades, the Maine Warden Service has tried its best to combat a trend that threatens all Mainers, and all of the state’s lakes, streams and rivers.
Illegal introductions of fish by people who are sometimes referred to, with disdain, as “bucket biologists” have been reported in lakes across Maine in recent years.
Now we have pike in the Belgrade Lakes and Pushaw Lake. We have smallmouth and largemouth bass in dozens of lakes and ponds where they do not belong.
Fish that have been transported to new waters have thrived, and often outcompeted the native fish. They also migrate from lake to lake, or lake to river, further exacerbating the problem.
“Thirty years ago, when these invasive fish species started showing up, not everybody was affected by it, so it wasn’t a big deal to them,” Game Warden Maj. Gregory Sanborn said Friday. “[But] as more and more of their favorite fishing holes started getting these invasive species in them and took over, it became more important to the fishermen of the state.”
Sanborn said that the problem has always been a priority for the state’s game wardens, but admitted that actually catching somebody in the act — or figuring out who illegally stocked a lake or pond — is difficult.
“[Maine has] 6,000 bodies of water. On any given day, 35 to 40 game wardens are on patrol,” Sanborn said. “I don’t know how many game wardens you’d have to hire to prevent [illegal] stocking. I don’t think you could get enough.”
The solution — if one exists — relies in part on education, in part on cooperation.
Sanborn said that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is making gains in those areas.
The DIF&W’s Information and Education division is responsible for spreading the word about illegal introductions of fish. The public is beginning to play a larger role in helping the wardens do their jobs.
“One of the things we’re kind of proud of is that with I&E and wardens talking to people, we’re getting more and more complaints [about suspicious activity or uncommon fish],” Sanborn said. “We’ve got more eyes out there than we ever had, and that’s how we’re catching people.”
Case in point: On Tuesday the warden service announced that a Limestone man had been charged with two counts relating to the release of a pacu, which is a South American fish related to the piranha.
As has become its custom, the DIF&W held a press conference to announce the charges, and to draw more attention to its efforts to stop the practice of transporting or stocking fish in inland waters.
“Every time we have one of these, we have a press conference,” Sanborn said. “We get the word out: Don’t let your favorite trout pond become a victim of invasive species.”
Unfortunately, those press conferences don’t happen very often.
Sanborn said that illegal stockings take a couple of forms. One, which he attributes to “ignorance,” takes place when a person tosses fish into a lake or stream to get rid of it.
According to the Maine Warden Service, that was the case in the Limestone incident.
More serious, perhaps, are illegal stockings that Sanborn terms “malicious.” In those cases, a person puts a species of fish in a lake that he or she plans to fish in the future, creating a custom-made fishing hole with the angler’s preferred fish.
That problem, Sanborn maintains, is pervasive. Once those fish become established, the problem gets even worse as area anglers accept the presence of the new species and eventually embrace fishing for them.
“A lot of people around the Belgrade area think that’s the best thing that’s ever happened, this pike [introduction] deal,” Sanborn said. “Those are the kind of people that you kind of lose the war on, because they think it’s wonderful.”
Sanborn has been around long enough — he’s in his 21st year of service as a Maine game warden — to realize that something ought to change.
But he has been around long enough to realize how difficult that change will be.
Someone prosecuted for illegal stocking faces a sizable fine, which can be as much as $10,000.
Actually prosecuting someone for illegally stocking a water isn’t common. Catching the bucket biologist who hopes to create a new bass or pike lake — the “malicious” stocker, in Sanborn’s words — is quite unlikely.
Yes, the warden service investigates. Yes, it keeps investigations open, and hopes for breaks that will lead in the right direction.
But so far, that hasn’t been good enough to send the message that needs to be sent.
“We’ve never had, in my memory, a successful prosecution of what I would call a catastrophic stocking, where people have introduced fish into a well-known trout pond. We’ve never been able to put one of those together,” Sanborn said. “We have put several together on smaller ponds when we get an [Operation Game Thief] complaint.”
But here’s a not-so-sobering thought: Somewhere, someone knows something about many of the illegal stocking cases that have yet to be solved.
All it may take to blow each of those cases open is a single phone call.
The wardens are waiting. They could use your help. For that matter, all of us who care about the state’s lakes and streams could use that help.
The number to call is 800-ALERT-US. You can remain anonymous.
Still not ready to pitch in?
Think of it this way: The next pond that gets hijacked by a bucket biologist might be your favorite.
How would you like that?