Down East 2013 ©
Crappie and bass are starting to collect in shallow water in the Belgrade Lakes watershed, making for great shore fishing, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Scott Davis recently told reporter Deirdre Fleming of the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Both fish are illegally introduced species. And that makes the comments of Davis particularly interesting.
More interesting is this: Davis is trap netting walleye on Great Pond and Long Pond in the Belgrades – and killing them.
When they pull their nets, IF&W’s biologists often find bass, yellow perch, northern pike, and crappie, along with walleye. All are illegally introduced non-native species. And all go back into the water, except for the unlucky walleye.
Crappie, for example, can now be found in more than 300 Maine lakes and ponds – illegally or inadvertently introduced in every single one.
Our love affair with non-native fish has been an environmental disaster – wiping out native trout, salmon, smelts, and other species. But we’ve never figured out how to deal with illegally introduced species – or how to stop their spread.
Davis should not be criticized for his effort to rid the Belgrades of walleye or for trumpeting the great crappie fishing there. His work and comments are backed by a long history of conflicting IF&W policies and programs, and a wholesale failure of anglers and the groups that represent them to consistently oppose these illegal introductions and do everything possible to get rid of these species when they show up in a water.
Indeed, we often demand these fish, and when IF&W fails to deliver, we put them in many waters where they don’t belong.
In 2003, the Interagency Task Force on Invasive Aquatic Plants and Nuisance Species offered a series of important recommendations including these:
1) all non-native fish species caught should be immediately killed. No size or bag limit on such species should be implemented in at-risk waters;
2) create a rapid response plan for invasive fish species – netting, chemicals, barriers, or no bag and length limits;
3) when fish species are illegally stocked, do not manage them in those waters as game fish. This practice only encourages illegal stocking of some anglers’ favorite species.
To its credit, IF&W now has a rapid response plan to deal with new illegal introductions of fish, but it is woefully underfunded and inadequate to the task. It has also adopted a new policy of not managing (protecting) illegally introduced species that appear in Maine waters in the future.
More difficult is the decision to stop managing illegally introduced species where they already occur – and most difficult of all is the suggestion that anglers should be required to kill these species.
Anglers who like these fish are not about to sit by and allow IF&W to rid the state of them. There are large numbers of anglers who now prefer muskie, pike, crappie, and bass, and many guides who now make most of their living guiding anglers to these fish.
And yes, you can count me as a avid smallmouth bass fisherman. I’ve got one foot up at my camp on Sourdahunk Lake, where I catch my beloved native brook trout, and the other foot in the Kennebec River where smallmouth bass excite me.
IF&W’s Ken Elowe, director of both the fisheries and the wildlife divisions, knows full well the difficult path his agency has had to follow on this issue. In 2001, the department proposed rules to protect smallmouth bass in a Hancock County lake, and got shot down by the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council – the agency’s rule-making body.
“Part of our mission is to give the public what it wants for fisheries,” said Elowe at the time. “If it’s an opportunity to manage for a better fishery, we should do it.”
In 2009 the Moosehead Fisheries Coalition proposed a catch-and-kill rule for three illegally introduced species: white and yellow perch and bass. The rule never had a chance. And today, IF&W issues permits for catch-and-release bass tournaments on Moosehead.
IF&W’s fisheries staff must be frustrated. One of the best, Francis Brautigam, expressed the concerns of the entire department when he reported, “The problem lies not just with ‘exotic’ species (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black crappie, blue gills, northern pike, white catfish, etc.) but also unauthorized introductions of native species (cusk, golden shiner, smelt, white perch, etc.).
“The rate of new illegal introductions is astonishing,” said Brautigam. “Every summer while conducting routine fisheries assessments, we accidentally encounter new illegal introductions, and we’re only sampling a small number of waters each year.
“These species are serious competitors with our indigenous trout and salmon, and have diminished our ability to maintain healthy populations of desirable forage, like smelt.”
Fisheries biologist Dave Boucher put it more bluntly, saying, “Illegal fish stockers are very selfish people with a destructive viewpoint. People need to understand that illegal introductions can wreak ecological havoc with our aquatic systems.”
It has to be noted that IF&W itself stocks nonnative fish, including brown and rainbow trout. Crappie first entered Maine in shipments of largemouth bass, purchased and stocked by IF&W. The department also is responsible for the smallmouth bass in many of the state’s waters.
For a long time, none of us understood or anticipated the devastating impact that these popular stocked fish would have on Maine’s native species. Today, we all know, but some simply don’t care.
I’ve often thought that IF&W ought to recognize the demand for these nonnative species, and figure out where to put them so they do the least amount of damage to native fish. Walleye, for example, are a very popular species. The best shore lunches I’ve ever eaten were walleye, cooked in a sizzling fry pan by an eighty-year-old Cree Indian named Sam on the Rupert River in northern Quebec.
Anglers also want big fish and walleye do grow large. A couple weeks ago Tom Conrad of Eldersburg, Maryland, a guest at Castle Island Camps on Belgrade’s Long Pond, caught a 7-pound 2-ounce 23.5-inch record-breaking walleye on upper Long Pond.
“I probably would have thrown it back if I hadn’t read the article in the paper that they want walleye out of the lake,” Conrad told Kennebec Journal reporter Mechele Cooper.
Castle Island’s owner John Rice noted that the catch is an unofficial record because walleye are not considered a game fish in Maine.
Rice reported that Conrad wanted to eat the fish, but he convinced him to donate it to the camp.
“They wanted to eat it – it’s a great eating fish,” said Rice. “And I said no, we want to mount it and keep it in the main lodge.”
Those comments sum up nicely our quandary over illegally introduced fish. We want to hate them – but it’s darned hard, especially a seven-pounder!