Down East 2013 ©
Good fisheries management demands good science. But the two state agencies responsible for management of inland and coastal fisheries are both starved for the funding necessary to perform good science.
I am most familiar with the inland fisheries, where the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife mostly manages anglers, not fish. And after the bruising legislative battle over a proposed saltwater fishing license, I know that the Department of Marine Resources is woefully short of resources to manage saltwater species.
In fact, DMR officials hoped to use some of the money generated by a saltwater fishing license to fund alewife research and management. Several important DMR staff positions focused on alewives were funded with money from the Kennebec dams settlement, and that money is running out.
Some fisheries advocates believe these two agencies should merge their fisheries divisions to gain efficiencies and manage fisheries within a statewide vision and plan.
That’s not a bad idea, although it is fiercely opposed by commercial fishermen who want their own agency and fear that recreational anglers would dominate DMR if they got a stake there, and inland recreational anglers who fear a takeover of IF&W if commercial interests were invited in.
There is one organization that bridges this gap, working with both agencies and practicing the very best science. That is the Gulf of Maine Research Institute  in Portland.
GMRI’s work has statewide importance and impact, from the commercial fishing net maker in Brownfield to the small seafood market in Brownville, from Middle School students in Lewiston and Lincoln to Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town to your dining room dinner plates in Raymond and Somerville and Waterford, from that nice lady in Dennysville who plucks, at her kitchen table, that sweet meat from the crabs her husband catches so I can buy it anytime I’m Down East to that hopeful angler casting into the surf at Popham beach; yes, to you and me, Maine consumers and anglers.
I stood in the Institute’s auditorium one day last year and witnessed a miracle. At each lab station, a group of Middle School students gathered to perform an experiment and record their results and findings on video. I’ve often been told that middle school students are the most unruly and difficult of classes.
But here, at the Institute, I saw groups of them working together, calmly and with obvious interest and excitement – and there were no teachers! The students were working on their own.
At one lab station, students intently studied a tank of fish, trying to figure out how the fish managed to swim around without ever bumping into one another. Then the kids tried it themselves, walking around the station, avoiding contact.
Yes! Avoiding contact! No kicking. No hitting. No spitting. What a great learning environment we have there. The students are picked up, anywhere in Maine, and bused to Portland, free of charge. And not a minute of their time is wasted because the Institute shows videos on the bus to prepare the kids for their day of study and experimentation.
On the second floor of the Institute, I was captivated by colorful storyboards explaining the fascinating work performed here by renowned scientists from all over the world. Yes, right here in Maine, they’re working to unravel the secrets of the sea, so that we can maintain and rebuild our struggling commercial fishing economy and protect our spectacular ocean environment and yes, maybe even harness the energy out there. Exciting stuff.
Their work is having, and will continue to have, a significant impact on Maine’s economy. Indeed, they may find the answers we’ve been struggling to uncover, so that our traditional economic opportunities and our fishing heritage may endure.
I have advocated for GMRI to expand its reach up every Maine river, into every Maine brook and stream, pond and lake, to figure out what’s gone and is going wrong there, and to help rebuild our inland recreational fishing economy and save our native fisheries.
Which, believe it or not, brings me back to alewives.
DMR and IF&W have suffered an embarrassing difference of opinion on the impact of introducing alewives to the St. Croix River watershed. Still unresolved, this contentious issue demonstrates the need for these two agencies to work more closely together so that our state can move forward within a single vision for our fisheries.
GMRI is helping sort through the contentious alewife issues with an interesting new $600,000 project funded by grants including $225,000 from the National Wildlife Foundation, using money from the fines collected from Overseas Shipholding Group for their illegal dumping of waste oil off the coast.
Beth Quimby of the Portland Press Herald wrote an interesting story about this project that appeared on April 20, 2010. Much of the information that follows was learned from Quimby’s story.
First, we know that alewife populations have plummeted in the last fifty years. And we don’t know why, although there are many theories (mine includes dams and poorly constructed culverts that block the passage of alewives to their inland spawning areas).
“There is a lot of pseudoscience out there but we really don’t know,” Jason Stockwell, a GMRI scientist, told Quimby. Stockwell, along with Theo Willis and Karen Wilson from the University of Southern Maine, is responsible for the alewife research program.
Stockwell noted that we know very little about alewives, including where they go when they leave Maine rivers and lakes and whether spawning adults return to the same water where they were born.
Lots of fish and wild animals eat alewives, and lobstermen use them for bait. The most hardy Mainers enjoy smoked alewives, something I’ve never warmed up to.
The ambitious GMRI alewife research program has twelve full-time and twelve part-time researchers. Right now they are sampling alewife populations in fourteen rivers and nine lakes, comparing them to alewives from the Nemasket River in Massachusetts. They’ll also look at alewives caught at sea as part of the bycatch of commercial fishermen.
“This population has been ignored,” Stockwell told Quimby.
Something else jumps out at me here.
Good science is expensive. The cost of the alewife project equals about 20 percent of IF&W’s entire fisheries budget (minus the costs of the state’s hatcheries).
This alewife project utilizes almost as many fisheries professionals as IF&W has statewide for all of its important programs. In fact, after the most recent budget cuts, the department’s fisheries division is down twenty percent in staff and other resources.
It isn’t just alewives that have been ignored. Fisheries research and management needs in both coastal and inland waters have been ignored for all species. Alewives are a small part of this much greater problem.
For now, we can look to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute for some answers while the greater problems of fisheries science await our attention.