Fighting for Maine’s Brook Trout at the Legislature

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Brook trout took a bashing today at the legislature, as a lengthy list of opponents turned out for the public hearing on LD 617, An Act to Protect the State’s Native and Wild Brook Trout and Discourage Illegal Fish Introduction. LD 617 is my bill, sponsored at my request by Representative Jeff McCabe.

OK, I’m the guy who got bashed today, but the bill did draw some great supportive testimony from Trout Unlimited, The Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon, and individual members of SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee. IFW Committee members also seemed very interested in the issue and asked many questions of those who testified.

The collection of opponents included members of the bait industry, a sporting camp owner, and ice anglers. I was disappointed when SAM’s Dave Trahan testified in opposition, but his problem with the bill seemed to be procedural, and he offered some positive comments about the need to deal with the issues raised by the bill.

John Boland took the opportunity, when testifying “neither for nor against” my bill, to educate the committee on key brook trout issues. I really had no problem with John’s testimony.

Perhaps the saddest thing John said, and something that concern every Mainer who cares about our native fisheries, is this: “We stress that the department currently lacks staff and fiscal resources to actively remove large numbers of invasive fish species. Expectations that the department’s staff will be able to reclaim additional ponds or spend more time conducting follow-up on reports of invasive species beyond our current response capability is unrealistic.”

Senator David Dutremble, the IFW Committee’s Senate Chair, focused on this, asking Boland to explain the capacity of his agency to respond to new introductions of invasive fish species, and what policies and programs were employed when that is discovered. John reviewed the state’s process and policies on illegal introductions, but acknowledged that he does not have the resources to adequately respond.

I will let you be the judge about the merits of the bill. Here is the testimony of Rep. McCabe, followed by my testimony.

Rep. Jeff McCabe

This bill recognizes the importance of native and wild brook trout to our history, our heritage, our environment, our economy, and our future as a people, as a state, and as sportsmen, conservationists, and environmentalists.

As the legislature did in 2005, on the A List brook trout waters, I am asking you to direct the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to create a list of wild trout waters – the B List – and to offer the protection to those brook trout that this committee demanded for the A list.

Currently B waters are defined as a lake or pond with a self-sustaining brook trout population that hasn’t been directly stocked with brook trout in at least 25 years, and is a principal fishery for brook trout (meaning an angler has a reasonable expectation of catching brook trout and that brook trout make up a significant portion of the catch).

I believe the same process would be warranted here. It would begin with the department presenting this committee with the appropriate B list. Then the committee, in consultation with the department and interested members of the public, would determine the appropriate protective strategies and regulations for these trout in these waters. The department would then go through the rule-making process this year to adopt those rules. And finally, as major substantive rules, those rules would come back to this committee for final action in 2014. You can use the law enacted for the A list waters as your guide.

History has proven us to be poor stewards of our precious brook trout resource. And before it is too late, we must do everything we can to protect our remaining native and wild brook trout. The legislature has played a key role in the past in this effort, and it’s time for us to step in again and do more, in full partnership with the department.

The other part of my bill is designed to provoke a discussion on invasive species. We’ve lost that battle in many places, including many of the waters here in central Maine where I live and work. The policy we offer you in this bill gives the legislature a chance to consider what has been lost, to recognize what must be protected, and to encourage the department to adopt an appropriate policy. I am not wedded to the policy in this bill. But I do think it’s a great place to start the discussion.

Finally, I want to make the case that our native and wild brook trout should be the state’s signature fish, driving our recreational fishing economy. You may be surprised to learn that visitor days to the North Woods by brook trout anglers has dropped almost 50 percent. In 1999, anglers spent 32,554 days fishing in this region. By 2012, that number had decreased to 17,265. A sustainable economy in that region of our state demands better management and marketing of brook trout.

I look forward to your vigorous discussion of these key issues, and hope to participate in that discussion as you move forward on this bill.

My Testimony

I thank Rep. McCabe for working with me on this bill. It’s my last proposal, and like the others, it is designed to provoke a discussion on a major issue and give you an opportunity to act comprehensively.

In my experience, change almost never comes from within state agencies. Change comes from outside the agencies, usually from the public and the legislature. In 2005, SAM proposed a bill to create the A list of brook trout waters and ban the stocking of fish on those waters. While the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife initially opposed the bill, after recognizing the interest of this committee and the merits of the bill, the department became a full partner and even suggested an important addition: a ban on the use of live fish as bait on those A list waters.

Representative McCabe described the A list process to you. All I can add is this. It worked. It brought real change and real protection to Maine’s brook trout. SAM and this committee initiated that important advance in brook trout protection, including naming brook trout as our state’s Heritage Fish and directing the agency to go to rule making on the protective measures. Senator Chandler Woodcock sponsored that bill. I believe the same process is necessary to recognize and protect brook trout in the B waters.

The divisive debate over the protection of brook trout in just nine waters, embodied in LD 170, is a good example of why we must tackle these issues comprehensively. It boggles my mind that later today you will be arguing about measures to protect brook trout on 3 or 4 waters that are now open to ice fishing.

And there’s a story within this story. I’ve told it before, as an example of how one person can make a difference. The person in this story is Gary Corson of New Sharon. Attached to my testimony is a piece I wrote about Gary a few years ago. I’m really pleased he is here today. Most of us are here because of him.

Let me offer a couple of quotes that demonstrate the need for this bill. “We will become Connecticut. We will end up with a homogeneous landscape, so there will be all species everywhere. It’s one of the things that makes Maine unique, to have the only species in a pond be brook trout. Unfortunately, every week, there are reports of new introductions.” These are the words of DIF&W regional fisheries biologist Nels Kramer from eastern Maine.

Here’s another voice. “Since the glaciers retreated, our coldwater fisheries have had little competition from warm water fish, but the unique places are at risk now. The way it’s going, we’re going to end up with a situation where a lot of fishing opportunities around Maine are not that unique.” These are the words of DIF&W regional fisheries biologist Francis Brautigam.

How can we stand by, after losing half of the brook trout anglers in the North Maine Woods, and fail to act? Even those who care nothing about protecting these beautiful fish, ought to care about protecting and enhancing our outdoor economy. An economy, as you know, that is in real trouble.

The section of this bill that offers an invasive fish policy came out of SAM’s conference last year on invasives. Sitting in the audience, and hearing that the agency had no policy and that perhaps we ought to propose a bill to direct the agency to create a policy, it seemed to me we ought to just write the policy for them. And that’s what I’ve done.

Of course, I know my policy is not only provocative, but also impossible to implement. I’ve talked with Mike Brown about this. He liked the policy, but warned me that he doesn’t have the manpower to carry out a plan if nonnative fish get into the Allagash drainage. I know that. And that’s actually the whole point of this bill. But that doesn’t mean this lack of resources should be an excuse for having no policy and no plan.

My proposed policy is clear. When an invasive fish is found for the first time in a water, after the date of enactment of this law, there will be no closed seasons and no bag limits on that fish, nor any promotion of fishing for those fish, and the Commissioner will encourage anglers to kill every one they catch.

I was flabbergasted a few years ago when a fisheries biologist in my region, trap netting fish on Long Pond in Belgrade, in order to kill illegally introduced walleyes, also caught four other illegally introduced fish species, and put all of those back in the water. Then he actually issued a press release saying that Crappie fishing was going to be terrific, because he’d caught a lot of Crappies in his net. Crappies are, of course, another illegally introduced species.

My policy also requires the Commissioner, on the A list waters now and, I hope, the B list waters soon – to check annually for invasives, and, if any are found, to do everything possible to eliminate them.

I’m really fortunate. I have a camp on Sourdahunk Lake, one of our best native trout waters. I fish a lot in Baxter Park’s brooks, streams, and ponds, where live fish as bait was banned in 1965 – that’s right, almost 40 years ago. I want my grandchildren and all who come after to know the beauty of a Maine brook trout. I hope you do to.

Maine is the last stand for brook trout. Shame on us if we lose them.

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