Protecting Brook Trout from Live Baitfish

Another super editorial from these good papers: Protecting brookies Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel Wednesday, February 28, 2007 Brook trout are native only to eastern North America. They're a fish prized by anglers, who will spend many dollars and much time in their pursuit. Anglers who love them say that brookies are the embodiment of contradiction: they're tough fighters, but a delicate fish that must be handled with care. They're so delicate and vulnerable, in fact, that changes in their native habitats can wreak havoc with trout. They don't like development, which can pollute and overheat their waters. Brook trout also don't like pike and smelt and other non-native fish being introduced to the lakes and ponds they call home in Maine. Some of these fish eat brookies, some of them eat the same food as the trout do. Inevitably, in these conditions many brook trout don't thrive or survive. Other problems occur when people move into the areas where brook trout live. Development means cutting down the trees that provide cooling shade for brook trout waters. Road building and other construction creates runoff that fills trout streams and ponds with silt and pollution. Native brook trout habitats in the intensively developed East have been so seriously degraded that populations of big fish have seriously declined in all but one place: Maine. Maine is now home to 97 percent of the East's remaining populations of large, native brook trout in lakes and ponds; there are populations of much smaller trout distributed throughout the East's rivers and streams, where they rarely grow to the size seen in lakes and ponds. That's both an economic opportunity and an ecological challenge for Maine. Economic opportunity because Maine can sell itself to anglers as the best place in the U.S. where they can fish for large, native brook trout; according to a state study issued a decade ago, sportfishing of all types even then brought in $300 million to the state every year. And it's an ecological challenge because maintaining brookie populations in the face of a variety of threats is not easy. Chief among those threats is competition by non-native fish introductions in Maine's lakes and ponds. That competition can diminish brook trout size and populations; just ask any of the older anglers who remember the days before smelt were introduced to Boundary Pond. That pond used to produce three-pound brook trout; no more. It's a story repeated all over Maine. The state's chief fish biologist, John Boland -- who works for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife -- said earlier this year that invasive fish in Maine's waters are the single biggest challenge faced by fisheries biologists. After a long and sorry history in which the state itself stocked non-native fish in some of our pristine waters, wrecking many of our famed fisheries, biologists have come around to the understanding that managing for ecological integrity is the right path. That's what led Boland's colleagues to come down so hard on a Freeport Chinese restaurant owner who kept a tank of non-native koi fish: "Maine has stepped up to the plate in recent years," Boland told the Portland Press Herald. "Now it's a $10,000 fine to stock a pond without a permit or to transport live fish without a permit…We're taking a hard line on it, whether it's illegal introduction of bass, or non-native or exotic fish species." That's why it's so hard to understand the opposition of Boland and IF&W to a bill that would outlaw the use of four species of non-native live bait popular with the state's ice fishermen. IF&W has been joined in its opposition by those ice fishermen, as well as bait dealers. The bill is an attempt to keep potentially invasive non-native species out of our lakes and ponds. It closes an exemption that allows ice fishermen to introduce non-native bait fish into our lakes, and reflects state policy against the use of non-natives in our waters. It would allow many other live species to be used as bait, but keeps these alien species out of our waters, where they could wreak ecological havoc. We think the bill is a good idea and merits serious consideration by the Legislature. A second bill would add stronger protections against the use of live fish as bait on the remaining wild brook trout waters where live bait hasn't already been banned. It also would prevent the state from stocking fish in those lakes. The state has already extended that protection to 305 other lakes and ponds. Maine has more than 7,000 lakes and ponds ("stillwaters" in fishing jargon) where live bait use would still be allowed; this proposal, which would probably add a couple hundred more lakes, hardly seems an unreasonable threat to live-bait fisherman or bait dealers. Rather, it's a prudent move to protect a unique Maine resource -- a move that will protect the ecological integrity of our native trout populations, as well as the economic value they represent.