Invasive Plants and Fish
Gathered around the small conference table in Room 126 at the Cross Office Building were an interesting mix of interests including lake associations, bass clubs, state agencies, and legislators, all called to this noontime meeting on January 28 by Representative Jane Eberle, an environmental activist and member of the Natural Resources Committee and the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.
Rep. Eberle got everyone’s attention with her bill, LD 1548, An Act to Prevent the Spread of Invasives and Protect Maine’s Lakes. The bill would ban bass tournaments on water bodies with confirmed infestations of invasive aquatic plants.
A collaborator by nature, Eberle convened a few of us at an earlier meeting on January 12, prior to the bill’s hearing, to explore her concerns. She is alarmed that Maine is not doing enough to combat the spread of invasive plants. And she wants to go far beyond bass tournaments to get at the (forgive me for this) root of the problem.
First, let’s put the bass tournament issue to rest. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issues permits for bass tournaments and requires those tournaments to check boats entering and leaving the water for plants. Both Eberle and the department believe this requirement needs to be beefed up, and DIF&W Fisheries Division Director John Boland, a participant in Eberle’s meetings, says he intends to do that. After hearing from the bass clubs, I am impressed with their commitment to be part of the solution.
The fish they seek, smallmouth bass, are nonnative invasive fish. I love fishing for smallies, feisty jumpers that have been spread statewide by anglers (illegally) and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (legally).
It is ironic that LD 1548 would ban anglers seeking a nonnative invasive fish from a lake because the lake contains a nonnative invasive plant. Very few seem concerned that the nonnative smallmouth bass has turned into our state’s number one fishery. Twice as many bass are caught each year in Maine than native brook trout, an astonishing fact.
We are conflicted about nonnative invasive species. Some we love. Some we love to hate.
Those we love are often not even recognized as nonnative to our state. Those we hate are always referred to as invasive and usually as illegally introduced.
The legislature has taken a real interest in the problem of invasive plants, levying fees on boat registrations to pay for an aggressive education, monitoring, enforcement, and eradication program.
It has ignored the much greater problem of invasive fish that have changed entire ecosystems. Muskies have wiped out native brook trout in the St. John River drainage. Pike have eaten everything in the Belgrades. Crappie have been introduced illegally in over 300 lakes and ponds.
All with nary a whimper of reaction. But boy oh boy, we’re extremely concerned about invasive plants.
Earlier in the session, the issue of invasives came up in Rep. Bob Duchesne’s LD 1508, a resolve requiring the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIF&W) to adopt rules clarifying the type of public access required before the department stocks fish in a water.
Duchesne is House Chair of the Natural Resources Committee and author of the popular Maine Birding Guide (published by DownEast). His bill was generated by a problem encountered by a friend with a camp on Pleasant Pond in Caratunk.
A privately owned boat ramp on Pleasant Pond, available to the public for many years, was closed. DIF&W won’t stock fish in water that doesn’t have public access. So the private landowners around the lake purchased a lot and made it available to the public.
But worried about milfoil, the private landowners gated the property and limited the public hours so they could be there to check boats entering and leaving the water for invasive plants.
DIF&W didn’t feel the hours and access was sufficient and refused to continue stocking fish in the pond.
If invasive plants were not a threat, there would be no problem.
I participated in a meeting with Rep. Duchense and DIF&W officials before the hearing on LD 1508 where an agreement was worked out. Because DIF&W has only a simple list of criteria they consider when judging satisfactory public access, Fisheries Director Boland agreed to pull together interested parties and create a more definitive policy. It may or may not solve the problem at Pleasant Pond.
I have contended for years that lake associations ought to advocate for closure of every private boat launch and force everyone to use a public launch that has effective monitoring and/or treatment for invasive plants.
So far, no lake association has agreed. They fight public access or try to limit it, while insisting on keeping their own private launches.
But a breakthrough of sorts may have occurred at Rep. Eberle’s most recent meeting with us. I heard a representative of the Congress of Lakes Association say she’d consider this proposal, while representatives of bass clubs offered some remarkably open-minded solutions of their own to address the problem of invasive plants.
We are looking at reallocating resources away from law enforcement in order to increase education and maybe even eradication. There are promising remedies that offer hope we can someday effectively remove these plants from the water.
My (admittedly far out) idea: splice a gene into the plants that makes them edible so my vegetarian friends can add the plants to their salads.
Ok, I’m joking.
We’ve also recognized that funding to combat invasives is inadequate. To raise more money, Maine might consider a fee for those who take up space on the public’s water with their private docks. Now that will surely bring a lot more people to the table!