IFW Committee Debates Rubber Worms

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Room 206 was standing-room-only this afternoon, filled with a crowd of anglers opposed to LD 42, An Act to Prohibit the Use of Rubber Lures for Fishing.

Apparently word spread nationwide about this bill. Standing in the Capitol Rotunda between the House and Senate this morning, Rep. Steve Wood, an IFW Committee member, told me he’d received 758 emailed messages on the bill, only one of which was in favor - and only 122 of which came from Maine residents. Steve said it was the most messages he’d ever received on any legislative issue.

Standing there talking with me, Steve received three more messages, from Texas, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.  The House chair of the IFW Committee, Mike Shaw, in the short walk from the House chamber to where I was standing in the Rotunda, received three messages from Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Ontario. Almost all of the messages received by Steve and Mike were exactly the same.

Sitting on the window ledge of the committee room, because there were no vacant seats by the time I arrived, and beginning to type this column, Steve came over and said he was now up to 840 messages. They’re pouring it on!

LD 26

First up for hearing today was LD 26, an Act to Authorize the Commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to Change a Fishing Season Opening Date Statewide. The bill authorizes the DIF&W Commissioner to change a fishing season opening date in inland waters of the state if weather conditions make that change necessary.

Only the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, that proposed the bill, and DIF&W’s Fisheries Division Director Mike Brown, testified for the bill. There were no opponents.

With year-round fishing in the southern 8 counties, this bill is focused on the rest of the state. In southern Maine, you can fish now in open water or through the ice at any time of year, whenever and wherever either opportunity is present. I saw a photo in today’s Kennebec Journal of two young guys fishing open water on Cobbossee Stream. One of them was quoted as saying he just didn’t feel like ice fishing that day.

Given the lack of opposition, the committee immediately went into a work session, asked Brown a few questions, and then voted unanimously in favor of the bill. A good start to this committee’s legislative session!

LD 41

LD 41, An Act to Allow a Person 65 Years of Age or Older to fish with Bait in any Inland Water, sponsored by Rep. Larry Dunphy. The bill would allow a person 65 years of age or older to use live bait, dead bait, or chemically preserved natural or organic bait in inland waters restricted to artificial lures and to troll in inland waters restricted to fly-fishing only.

Dunphy, in his presentation of the bill, actually referred to fishing goals that were proposed by SAM and enacted by the legislature to expand fishing opportunities. He also asked to amend the bill so that it doesn’t include specific places on the Kennebec River. Most of his testimony was about elderly friends who can no longer fly fish.

Speaking in favor of the bill was Wade Robertson from Bowdoin, Maine. “I’m here today to remind this committee that Maine citizens… own all great ponds.” His expressed anger with the DIF&W Advisory Council to ban the use of bait on 9 “B List” brook trout waters. That issue will actually be revisited by the IFW Committee later this session, because of a bill that would reverse that decision.

Wade seemed to have a real grievance with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and he went on at length about his grievances, going back many years. He especially objected to SAM’s successful advocacy for fall and year-round fishing. At one point, he expressed his anger with SAM, Trout Unlimited, and me!

Senator Anne Haskell pointed out that his support for this bill was contradicted by much of his testimony. No one else spoke for the bill.

Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association beat a bunch of others to the podium to be the first to speak against the bill. “Contrary to what you just heard, we are not greedy,” said Don. “We are about benefiting the resources of this state. This is the most important thing to our businesses. Without a resource, we are out of business,” said Kleiner, always focused and succinct in his testimony. “Put the resource first,” he urged.

Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited offered extensive testimony, including a history and defense of DIF&W’s prohibitions on use of live bait. He spoke about fish mortality, from hooks to bait, the threats of accidental introductions of baitfish to our waters, something that “has been recognized by Maine’s fisheries professionals since the 1950s. Jeff distributed a packet of information on these issues, including research and reports.

Lance Wheaton, a Downeast guide and former member of the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council, disclosing that he was “in the over 65 group,” defended fishing restrictions that protect the fishery. “Leave it alone,” he advised.

Senator Haskell asked Lance an excellent question about the physical differences in casting flies and bait. “What are the limitations on each style of fishing?” she asked. Lance did a good job of answering the question, explaining the accommodations he makes for people who have physical disabilities that prevent them from fly fishing effectively, including the use of a spinning rod.

Greg Ponte of West Gardiner spoke against the bill, representing the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited. He described the way DIF&W considers and enacts fishing rules. He also informed the committee about the legislature’s action on the 300 “A List’ brook trout waters. The legislature designated brook trout in those waters as Heritage Fish, banned stocking of those waters, and prohibited the use of live fish as bait there. “We did that to assure that these trout would be there for future generations,” said Ponte. Greg was particularly effective as he informed the committee about TU’s program for disabled veterans.

Becky Morrell, speaking for SAM, also opposed the bill. And I spoke two, emphasizing two points. First, that it’s always unfortunate when anglers come to the legislature to fight each other over our fishing opportunities. And then I told them we were selling people short, particularly senior citizens and young people, when we brought forth legislation to give them special opportunities in fly fishing only waters. I told the committee about my Dad, who learned to fly fish when he was 68, and my grandson, who fly fished with my help last summer at the age of 5.

Gary Corson of New Sharon, the longtime leader of fall fishing and brook trout protection, spoke against the bill and in defense of our native brook trout. He also talked about the economic value of these fish. He doubted the majority of elderly anglers even wanted this change.

As each opponent advanced to the podium, it was clear that this bill had drawn a lot of passion and concern.

The big surprise on this one: no testimony against the bill from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Instead, Deputy Commissioner Andrea Erskine testified “neither for nor against” the bill. She said base don the initial draft she was prepared to testify against the bill, but since it was made clear that the sponsor did not intend for the bill to apply to protected Heritage waters, and she was able to talk to him about his specific interests in the Kennebec River, that she was ready to work with him through the rule-making process.

She answered a question, informing committee members that in 2011 DIF&W issued almost 37,000 fishing licenses to residents and 10,000 to nonresidents of age 65 or older.

80-year-old Frank Smimmo also spoke in the neutral category, reporting that he can still throw a fly, but that bait anglers were out to catch fish to eat, and were killing every fish they catch, in his opinion. That was the final word on this bill!

LD 42 and 43

Rep. Shaw, before the hearing on this bill began, reminded the audience that personal attacks would not be tolerated, a belated nod toward Wade Robertson’s attack on me earlier in the afternoon.

Rep. Paul Davis stirred up quite a response with his bills to ban the use of rubber and nondegradable lures. He said he put the bills in at the request of Lance Wheaton, and understanding that they would be controversial, he did not seek cosponsors.

“I haven’t gotten so much attention since my whoopie pie bill,” exclaimed Paul, to the audience’s delight. While saying he didn’t know a lot about this, he handed out some of the information he’d gathered on the issue, and found support for the proposal from anglers who have seen the damage these lures can do.

Fishing with friends not long ago, he learned of fish that they had seen with rubber worms in their stomachs. Paul also heard a suggestion that a one-year phase in of the restriction be

He said former warden John Whalen supported the bill, and announced a request from the American Sport Fishing Association that DIF&W do a study of the issue.

“I’ve concluded that this is a good topic for the committee to discuss,” said Paul, and asked the committee’s analyst to do some research before the work session on these bills, including asking LL Bean if they still sell rubber and nondegradeable lures, and how much the department spends to raise a fish for stocking in Maine. Paul also noted that two of the three fish he saw caught last weekend had old hooks in their mouths.

Senator David Burns, another IFW Committee member, testified in favor of the bill, distributing testimony from Rick Jordan, a retired DIF&W fisheries biologist.

Lance Wheaton spoke for the bill, recognizing “this is a tough issue” and reporting that he didn’t support the bill as written. Turns out he thinks it doesn’t go far enough. And then he broke out what he called “some gruesome pictures” of fish caught with rubber lures inside or hanging out of their bodies. One fish had 17 pieces of rubber!

He also handed out biodegradable lures and bait that he’d made himself. “I’d like to see manufacturers making these,” he said. And then he took on hooks, calling for changes that would allow them to be digested. I have to say, I am proud of Lance, who has not always seen eye to eye with me, for raising this critical issue and bringing it to the legislature for debate.

Senator Burns said many of the messages he’d received was that this ban would cost Maine hundreds of thousands of dollars and asked Lance if he agrees. “Well, they said the sky was going to fall too and it didn’t,” responded Lance, getting a good laugh from the committee and audience.

Jeff Lewis, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council, also testified for the bill, focusing on what he’s seen as a diver for law enforcement agencies. “It’s amazing how many of these lures you see on the bottom.”

As the committee turned to opponents, the Maine Bass Nation was well represented by its Vice President Mark Desjardin and some members. In fact, they comprised nearly the entire contingent of opponents. Desjardin spoke for more than 30 minutes, and the committee peppered him with questions.

As the steady stream of opponents trudged to the podium, at the two hour mark of these hearings, in a stifling hot room, my interest in continuing to write a blow-by-blow account of today’s proceeding waned. So here’s a summary of the testimony against the bills. 

Rubber baits do not kill fish. In fact, no rubber worms are made today. Lures are made with plastic and other components. These are the most popular lures used for fishing for all species. They are used in youth fishing events including DIF&W’s Hooked-on-Fishing events. Live bait is more harmful to fish. There is no science that indicates this is a problem. The negative financial impact would be considerable on both anglers and the state’s $600 million angling economy.

Maine Bass Nation reported it was responsible for all the emailed messages received by committee members, because it’s leaders had asked national bass groups for help.

Rep. Stanley Short, a member of the committee, told Desjardin that he was offended by the flood of emailed messages, and the group’s effort “cost you a vote on this bill.” Short said he’d been badgered, including some “who told me my political career is over and I’ve only been here for about a week.”

Senator David Burns asked Desjardin some sharp questions, urging him to read the testimony burns had submitted showing evidence of a problem, and informing him of how the bottom of Maine’s lakes today are littered with these lures.

Dave Barnes,a professional bass angler, testified for the Maine Bass Federation. Out of the thousands of bass he’s looked at, only a handful has rubber or plastic worms in them. He says degradable lures don't hold up as well as plastic.  Barnes criticized the previous ban on the sale of 1/2 ounce lead sinkers, saying replacement sinkers are much more expensive.

The questions of committee members indicated a serious interest in doing something with these two bills. The work session on these bills is scheduled for February 19 and should be very interesting!






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