June 18, 2018
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Maine’s biologists have done well conserving wild brook trout

Tom Walsh | BDN
Tom Walsh | BDN
The Autisville Farm on Court Street in Machias meets a wide variety of local needs, ranging from affordable live bait, notary public services, tuning up that hard-to-start chainsaw and, of course, marriages.
By Paul Johnson, Special to the BDN

Some erroneous statements and assumptions were included in George Smith’s contribution to the Maine Outdoors section of the July 13-14 edition of the Bangor Daily News. Perhaps most egregious was his statement that, “Surprisingly, even some of DIF&W’s fisheries biologists — past and present — oppose protective regulations like no-live-fish-as-bait for our wild trout.”

Maine’s extensive wild brook trout resources, though certainly not what they were 150 years ago, are more abundant than in any other state in the eastern United States. This is no accident.

Before groups such as Trout Unlimited, the Maine Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, and even the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (the organization Smith used to lead), Maine fisheries biologists were working diligently to conserve the state’s wild brook trout populations. These efforts continue to this day despite assertions by naysayers.

For more than 60 years, Maine’s fisheries biologists have done a remarkable job managing wild brook trout by protecting their habitat through all means available. They’ve also recommended appropriate fishing seasons, catch limits, minimum lengths for fish that can be taken home and reasonable fishing gear restrictions.

Rules prohibiting the use of live fish as bait have long been an important component of these conservation efforts. Maine fisheries biologists have continually recommended no-live-fish-as-bait rules for lakes and ponds that contain a minimum number of species that compete with brook trout and where new species are unlikely to be introduced naturally.

Smith’s problem with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s fisheries biologists emanates from recent legislation reversing department rules that prohibited the use of live fish as bait on four northern Maine waters. These four waters are far from pristine wild trout waters.

They contain 15-21 fish species in addition to brook trout, including the most commonly used bait fish species in Maine. The fact that wild trout populations continue to thrive in these waters is likely due to habitat conditions that differ substantially from conditions found in smaller, shallower bodies of water.

Was eliminating the use of live bait the answer to “saving” the brook trout in these four waters? Are they really threatened by anglers fishing with legal bait fish species? Rather than eliminate the use of live fish as bait, wouldn’t it have been logical to limit the baitfish species allowed to those already present in those waters?

Consider also the location of these four waters. Waters both downstream and upstream remain open to fishing with live bait. Prohibiting live fish as bait in these four waters without taking into account the potential for immigration from adjacent waters makes little sense.

However, the real concern over the ban on live bait in these four waters lies in the process through which this ban was enacted.

Mandating brook trout management with a top-down approach from Augusta and ignoring professional staff recommendations and comments from the angling public at public hearings sets a poor precedent for managing Maine’s fisheries resources. Fisheries management involving recommendations from regional staff, working with all the public interests in each region’s fisheries, is the traditional and, ultimately, most successful approach to protecting Maine’s wild brook trout resources.

In fact, that is how the use of live fish as bait was prohibited in Baxter State Park waters back in the mid-1960s. The ban was recommended by regional fisheries biologist Roger AuClair and supported by the Millinocket Fin and Feather Club.

Finally, Smith also erred in attributing the “over my dead body” comment to my opposition to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s proposals for native brook trout waters. I actually made that comment years earlier in opposition to SAM’s proposals to open waters with wild salmon and brook trout to fishing after Sept. 30. In my professional opinion, then and now, providing Maine’s native brook trout the best care possible does not include catching them on their spawning grounds, even if they are to be released.

Fortunately, for me at least, Smith was correct in that I am still alive. And fortunately for Maine’s wild brook trout, they can today pursue their spawning rituals after Sept. 30 without interference from anglers. That protection is no error on the side of wild trout.

Paul Johnson, of Oakland, is a retired fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

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