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A tainted process over use of live bait fish

Maine Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash
Maine Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash
Posted June 30, 2013, at 1:25 p.m.
Last modified July 03, 2013, at 1:34 p.m.

This spring, State Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, sponsored a bill that, in effect, overturned a fishing regulation promulgated by the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife and endorsed by the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council. The departmental regulation banned the use of live fish as bait on a number of northern waters.

The bill, which represents an abrupt reversal of Fish and Wildlife policymakers, was co-sponsored by a number of state lawmakers who serve on the Committee on Inland Fish and Wildlife.

The long-simmering controversy swirled around the issue of whether or not to ban the use of live bait in a number of popular ice fishing waters so as to protect brook trout. Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and his fisheries chief argued that the trade off was worth it. Others, including most of his regional fisheries biologists, disagreed, arguing that the use of live bait poses no scientifically proven threat to brook trout, and the potential gain does not justify an effective ban of ice fishing.

During the public work session, the legislative committee voted 10-1 for the bill. Later on, an amended version overturned the departmental ban of live fish as bait on just four bodies of water: Millinocket Lake, Munsungan Lake, Millimagassett Lake and Webster Lake.

Regardless of how one views this debate from simply a regulatory standpoint, there is a more far-reaching issue beneath the surface, a bugaboo of a different strain. It reared its ugly head during the committee’s work session this spring. It eclipses even the protection of our valued trout fishery. It has to do with the process, the political and administrative mechanism through which we make public decisions about managing our sport fishery in this state.

During the work session it became clear, based on comments by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, and some other state lawmakers, that the committee felt misled, if not outrightly betrayed, by the department. Although the department testified before the committee that there was no significant opposition to the live bait ban on the waters in question, the truth eventually rose to the surface. The regional fisheries biologists were, in fact, united in their opposition to the department’s ban.

As a justifiably irritated Burns observed at the work session, “We were told just the opposite!” One of the lawmakers, equally annoyed, said,” I find this very disturbing. Don’t the rest of you?”

To make matters worse, the lawmakers’ request that the department invite two regional fisheries biologists to the work session was not honored. This omission did not go over well at all. Angry, one lawmaker said, “We have a right to have these biologists here before us. They should be free to come and feel free to speak freely without being scared.”

Department spokesman John Boland — who has since retired — tried to reassure lawmakers that his reason for not inviting his biologists was simply out of concern for their comfort levels. “We did not want to put them in the awkward public position of being in a position opposite of the commissioner. No threats or hints of reprisals were ever made,” said Boland.

Is Boland’s assertion credible?

Maine’s cadre of regional fisheries biologists are, for the most part, good, guileless professionals just trying to do their jobs. They are also mature, confident adults who don’t need to be mollycoddled by their “protective” supervisors. As a group, Maine’s regional fisheries biologists are united in their deep-seated concern that the well-established state fisheries management mechanism has been politicized and perverted by IF&W managers. The regional biologists fear reprisals from higher ups and feel restrained from speaking out, out of fear for their jobs.

Was the department really concerned about the biologists’ comfort levels or its own? Or, if the biologists were, indeed, afraid to testify before the committee, were they possibly more worried about job security than a case of the speaker’s jitters?

Retired state fisheries biologist, Rick Jordan, had this to say: “We have never seen such a large problem in the department. There is no longer a good professional working relationship of trust, such had occurred until the last few years. Those three administrators (Commissioner Woodcock, Resource Director John Boland and Fisheries Director Mike Brown) repeatedly show disdain for the biological staff, having set themselves up as the only ones whom they believe know what represents the best fisheries management for Maine’s angling public. Communication from the administrators to subordinates is terrible.”

Jordan also insists that morale within the fisheries division is lower than he has ever seen in his 38 years with the department. Another equally respected and retired state fisheries biologist, Paul Johnson, echoed Jordan’s sentiments.

Commissioner Woodcock, when asked about these problems, dismissed them out of hand. “Some people have difficulty adjusting to change,” he said.

Protecting trout is a noble cause and a worthy passion, but it should not come at the expense of subverting the precious public process or fostering a management culture in IF&W that is threatening or repressive.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of the weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3). He is a former information officer for the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife and a former editorial page and managing editor of the Bangor Daily News. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com, and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”

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