Baitfish ban finalized, but controversial plan remains hot topic

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On Dec. 20th, according to plan, the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council met with Commissioner Woodcock and his fisheries staff to sort out the highly controversial plan to ban the use of live fish as bait on 16 so-called “B” waters.

These waters are known to have populations of reproducing brook trout. The proposal was the source of concern to many sportsmen, especially ice fishermen, bait dealers and sporting camp operators. The deep divide on this issue was not limited to the sport fishing community either. There were disagreements about the proposal within the Department itself, especially between regional fisheries managers and fisheries policymakers in Augusta.

One side argued that the “”B” waters baitfish ban was critically needed to protect reproducing brook trout, even if they were not native fish like those in the already protected “A” waters. The other side argued that there was no compelling scientific data to indicate that baitfish are a significant threat to brook trout survival.

In the middle of this debate were those who felt that the Department’s baitfish ban was too sweeping in scope; that effectively banning ice fishing on traditional ice fishing waters should not be undertaken lightly without first weighing the costs versus the benefits. One of those cool-headed organizations that positioned itself in the thoughtful middleground of this controversy was SAM, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Although SAM itself was divided, it did guardedly lend its support to IF&W’s baitfish ban on most of the proposed waters. SAM had some reservations, especially about the sweeping nature of the proposal.

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SAM’s words:

“We would like to reiterate, support of this change does not reflect support for future similar changes on other lakes. Our members are very supportive of protecting the native brook trout, but also believe the use of live bait is appropriate in many cases and that when this change is made, it should be done on a case by case basis, weighing the dangers and benefits of such a change very carefully. The SAM board was closely divided on this change and in the future we believe more research is needed to weigh all factors. Creating a precedent, such as closing a pond to live bait to protect against the illegal introduction of invasives is a precedent that could be used to shut down live bait on every body of water. We recommend a more formal structure and suggest better data could assist in the process.”

Please reread my underlined sentence in the foregoing SAM comments. SAM hit the proverbial nail a reverberating blow: By using the live bait ban as a method of stemming the worrisome tide of invasive fish species in any waters holding trout, which is part of the ban rationale, a far-reaching and dangerous precedent is being spawned by our fisheries policymakers. Indeed, there needs to be a more defensible formal structure and much more compelling data.

What may be lost in the passion and good intent is the subtle but critical distinction between protecting native trout and wild trout. Native trout, which populate nearly 300 of our totally protected “A” waters, are a pure strain whose ancestry goes back eons. Wild trout, on the other hand, are those in the “B” waters whose precursors were once raised in a hatchery. They are wild in the sense that they are known to be reproducing. Even as schooled as SAM is on this issue, it referred to the trout in”B” waters as “native trout,” which they are not. Words matter. The distinction takes on new relevance if we are going to impose policy that, in effect, disenfranchises a segment of our angling community.

At the final vote on Dec. 20, the advisory council saw fit to pare down the 16 proposed waters to nine for the no-fish-as-live-bait ban. They are listed below.

Chase Lake, T9 R10 WELS

Wheelock Lake, St. John PLT

Millinocket Lake (including Little Millinocket Lake), T07 R09, T8 R9, T7 R10 WELS

Munsungun Lake (including Little Munsungan Lake), T8 R9, T8 R10, T9 R10 WELS

Millimagasset Lake, T7 R8 WELS

Twin Island Pond, Lowelltown TWP

Mountain Catcher Pond, T6 R8 WELS

Fish Pond (Little), Holeb TWP

Webster Lake, T6 R10 and T6 R11 WELS

Most of the ponds that were removed from the original list of 16 were determined to be marginal “B” waters that perhaps should not have been on the list in the first place.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”

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