March 31, 2020
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Brook trout: Danger in the bait pail

I have watched Maine’s efforts to protect native fish and prevent the spread of invasive fish for 55 years — as an aquatic and fisheries scientist and manager retired from a long career with the Maine departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Environmental Protection. Since before my career began, the IF&W has been warning about the risks posed by new species of fish to native fish — especially wild brook trout. While illegal stocking of game species such as bass and pike is a real threat, accidental introductions of bait fish species is just as serious.

For many years IF&W has been reclaiming brook trout ponds — poisoning them to remove all fish, then reintroducing brook trout — to remove competitors such as suckers, smelts and shiners that are legal as live bait fish in Maine. The most recent example, the reclamation of Big Reed Pond — located 45 miles southwest of Ashland — after smelts decimated blueback char and brook trout populations, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of staff and volunteer hours.

Maine’s professional biologists have long recognized this concern. The department’s official magazine, “Maine Fish and Wildlife,” had an article in its very first issue in 1959 by my colleague and former boss, Bob Foye: “Danger in the Bait Pail.” Other articles followed: “Minnows, For Better or Worse” (1969), “Live Bait Can Boomerang” (1970-71), “Imported Baitfish: Let’s Keep Them Out of Maine” (1980-81) and “Non-Native Biological Pollution” (1983).

Maine biologists have long recognized that one part of the solution is to restrict use of live bait fish in ponds with wild brook trout populations. Many old “lake surveys” conducted by IF&W biologists contain notes suggesting regulation changes to ban use of live fish as bait — to prevent introduction of competing species. Maine’s 2009 Strategic Management Plan for Brook Trout recognizes this risk and notes, “It has long been the policy of fisheries biologists to recommend the imposition of regulations restricting the use of live fish as bait on newly-surveyed waters that have brook trout populations but few if any competing species.”

Over decades, we’ve done a good job of limiting this threat — primarily by instituting rules that ban use of live fish as bait but allow use of other baits, lures and flies. We know that where “no live fish as bait” has been applied as policy, it has worked very well. Thirty-one ponds in Baxter State Park were designated as “no live fish as bait” in the mid-1960s. Today, most of them contain brook trout alone or brook trout and a few native bait species.

Last fall, the IF&W proposed “no live fish as bait” rules on 16 lakes and ponds. The proposal received plenty of comment. After four contentious hearings and dozens of written comments, the public reaction was clear. Ninety-one comments supported “No Live Fish as Bait” on these waters, with 40 opposed. After three meetings of the advisory council, and some changes to address issues raised in the comments, rule changes were adopted on nine of the 16 waters. The advisory council voted 8-1.

Now, LD 170, Resolve, “To Allow the Use of Live Bait When Ice Fishing in Certain Waters of the State,” has been introduced. The bill would require that the IF&W allow use of live fish as bait for ice fishing in all nine of the waters, even though five of the nine don’t even allow ice fishing.

These are special waters. All of them support wild populations of brook trout. Five of the nine have never been stocked with brook trout, and, of the remaining four, only one has been stocked with brook trout in the past 62 years. The proposed regulations to protect them have been through a lengthy public process.

State and federal biologists have identified Maine as “the last true stronghold for native brook trout,” with more than 97 percent of the remaining native and wild lake and pond populations of brook trout. The same report identified introduction of non-native species as the primary threat to these populations. We are at a crossroads for management. It’s time we gave trout in these lakes the protection they deserve. We must move towards a watershed concept as all fish have the freedom to move within the drainage.

LD 170 would overturn months of thoughtful consideration and public process; it should not pass. We therefore urge an “ought not to pass” vote. However, as the IF&W moves forward to fulfill its competing missions of protecting our brook trout resource and providing opportunity for anglers, we urge them to engage all stakeholders to help devise appropriate rules that strike the best balance.

Now retired, Matt Scott was a fisheries and aquatic biologist with the Maine departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Environmental Protection for 55 years. He was appointed deputy commissioner of IF&W and also served as chairman of the Board of Environmental Protection.

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