In late September and early October, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists, along with partners including the Maine Army National Guard, completed one of the most ambitious fisheries projects in DIF&W history.
They chemically reclaimed 90-acre Big Reed Pond, which is one of just 12 Maine waters to hold arctic char, or blueback trout. In fact, Maine is the only state in the lower 48 with arctic char.
An organic fish-killing compound, rotenone, was used to kill all fish life in Big Reed. Nontarget fish, including arctic char and brook trout, had been previously removed from the pond and taken to a fish hatchery.
By all accounts, the project was a success.
And by all accounts, it should never have been necessary: If an illegal introduction of rainbow smelts and creek chubs hadn’t taken place a couple decades ago, the char still would have been thriving.
Frank Frost, the DIF&W biologist who oversaw the project, said the smelts didn’t naturally migrate into Big Reed Pond. They had help. And that’s a problem.
“It was either through bait fish being released inadvertently at the end of [an angler’s trip] … or it could be someone thinking that they were doing something good by releasing another forage fish,” Frost said.
Getting people to believe that releasing a few smelts into a pond could have catastrophic results has been difficult, according to Frost.
“That’s been an uphill battle for us with Big Reed. People just don’t believe that smelt, in and of themselves, have caused such a decline [in the char population],” he said. “The fact is, they have. In these trout ponds, and in this case a char pond, ecologically they can wreak havoc on these sensitive systems.”
Still skeptical? Ask Gordon “Nels” Kramer what he thinks.
Krame is a longtime DIF&W biologist who works out of West Enfield. He says there’s evidence of similar crises in ponds across the state.
“We have a place in Baxter [State] Park, Long Pond, that is a 3-mile hike [from any road]. Smelts didn’t get there on their own. Somebody hauled them up in a bait bucket,” Kramer said. “Big Reed, same situation. Smelts didn’t get in there on their own. Obviously somebody brought them in in a bait bucket. Some inconsiderate slob.”
The inconsiderate slobs are among us. There’s no doubt about it.
And while their numbers may be small, the effects of their actions can be catastrophic.
If the reintroduction effort of char goes as planned at Big Reed Pond, fisheries biologists will have dodged a major bullet. Losing just one of our char ponds to an illegal introduction is unacceptable.
And Big Reed was very nearly lost, Frost says. Biologists tried for three years to net and capture all the char in Big Reed Pond, he says. In those three years, they caught 15. As the rotenone was introduced to the pond and dying fish headed to the surface before ultimately sinking, nine people in five boats patrolled.
They were looking for any char that had been left behind, and hoped to save them.
“We didn’t see a single char,” Frost said.
Big Reed is a small pond. It’s shallow. It didn’t take long, in the grand scheme of things, for smelts to out-compete char for food, and for grown smelts to chow down on young char.
“Within another couple of generations, the char would have been gone,” Frost said. “We intervened at the last possible time.”
That’s a good thing.
Sadly, the project never should have been necessary.
Final salmon data out
Oliver Cox of the Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat checked in Thursday with a piece of expected news from Veazie.
Cox is a fisheries biologist who works on the front line of Atlantic salmon restoration. He monitors the fish trap at the Veazie Dam and periodically tells us how many fish have returned to the Penobscot River … and how that total compares with past years.
The trapping season is now over, and Cox’s latest report will be his last of the year.
And as it turns out, this wasn’t exactly a banner year for salmon returns on the river. Cox explained that the total trap catch in 2010 was down from the past two years: 1,316 salmon returned to the trap this year.
That total trailed the 2,115 salmon that returned in 2008, and the 1,958 returnees in 2009. It is also slightly lower than the five year average for 2005-09.
The seasonal run of fish started out strong, but as the river warmed, fish traffic slowed dramatically.
“There were only a few (58) returns since mid-July,” Cox wrote. Overall, the average river temperature wasn’t much higher — just 1.8 F — than the long-term average, however.
Cox said that scale samples to determine fish age had not been completed, but based on the size of the fish that returned, he estimated that 33.5 percent of the run were grilse, or fish that had spent a single winter at sea before returning to the Penobscot.
Recent trap returns at Veazie Dam: 2000: 534 fish; 2001: 786; 2002: 784; 2003: 1,114; 2004: 1,324; 2005: 985; 2006: 1,045; 2007: 916; 2008: 2,115; 2009: 1,958; 2010: 1,316.
The record trap catch at the dam was set in 1986, when 4,137 salmon returned to the Penobscot.