New Group Tackles Native Brook Trout Issues

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 The first meeting of a new group focused on protection of our native brook trout was very encouraging. The group was organized by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in reaction to two legislative bills that I proposed.

One bill called for protecting tributaries to brook trout waters on the state’s Heritage List, and the other bill would have placed more brook trout waters on that list. Although DIF&W originally opposed both bills, they eventually stepped up and promised to achieve those goals and report back to the legislature’s IFW Committee in January on their progress. The agency’s written memo to the IFW Committee included a promise to establish a Heritage Brook Trout and Charr Working Group.

Although the promise was made in early May, the group’s first meeting was not scheduled until August 31, leaving little time to achieve the department’s promises.

I attended the group’s first meeting and was impressed and encouraged by the discussion. Public members of the committee are Sebastian Belle, Executive Director of Maine’s Aquaculture Association, Sally Stockwell of Maine Audubon, and Gary Corson and Steve Brooke.

The wide ranging discussion included a presentation by Corson of the history of the State Heritage Fish law, an update on the current status of the list and program, and a lengthy discussion of what needs to be done now, including a presentation of a “Vision for the management of state fish heritage waters” by Brautigam.

Brautigam emphasized the importance of “staff buy-in” to any initiatives. DIF&W Regional Biologist Tim Obrey is a member of the new group, although he didn’t have much to say at the first meeting. Brautigam said that some staff members “were offended” by outside efforts to protect native book trout. He also reported, “We are not of the mind of putting every brook trout water on the list.”

Belle chimed in that “Maine has an incredible resource – brook trout and charr. They deserve protection.” He also noted that “hatcheries have an enormous impact on genetics.” Belle testified on a legislative bill this session that called for the creation of a Hatchery Commission to exam the state’s system and issues, saying that DIF&W’s system was way out of date and very inefficient. He even offered to help the agency on those issues.

Belle, who has a home in Jackman, said he’s seen the important impact of ice fishing in that area. “The wild bait fishery is not really regulated and has a huge impact,” he said, noting that biosecurity is a big issue today. Brautigam agreed.

Brooke recommended reconvening DIF&W’s bait working group, because a lot of the group’s recommendations were never implemented. Brautigam has a relatively new bait working group and said he would reconvene that group to address the issues discussed, “to create an understanding of how they collect, sort, and manage wild bait.” He reported that biologists and wardens are uncomfortable with the use of wild bait, thinking that users may be violating rules and laws.

One issue that was raised was the fact that southern Maine anglers catch their own bait and use it in northern Maine waters. “Bait is a huge piece of this,” said Brautigam.

Stockwell brings a great perspective of fisheries management and protection to this group, and repeatedly emphasized the need to focus on the larger issues and unique resources we have in Maine, noting that we are the “last stronghole for brook trout. We have a responsibility to protect that.”

“What can we do to assure this resource will be here in the future?” she asked. “Protect the resource first,” she said, “and study genetics later. Remember the big picture.”

While Brautigam is concerned that protecting tributaries will require a lot of studies and work by fisheries biologists, Corson has already looked at the Heritage waters and reports that more than 200 of them have no tributaries.

Stockwell opened an interesting discussion, suggesting that a more comprehensive approach to native brook trout protection could simplify the process, rather than looking at every pond and tributary individually. There was a lot of discussion about what this process would be like.

Stockwell also said that legislators agreed that we should be looking at both tributaries (inlets) and outlets to protected waters, but Brautigam said they were only looking at inlets.

A second meeting of this group has not yet been scheduled, but it’s clear to me that these folks have a lot of work to do before they report back to the legislature’s IFW Committee. That committee carried one of the two fisheries bills over to the 2018 legislative session, so it will be available if the department fails to get the job done.

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