OTISFIELD – Marijuana plants found growing last fall on an Otisfield man’s property landed him in hot water with police. But it was the incidental discovery of illegally stocked bass in his ponds that netted the bigger penalty.

On Dec. 14 in 11th District Court, Nicholas Palmer, 23, pleaded guilty to cultivating marijuana and illegally stocking fish in a private pond. Judge John McElwee fined Palmer $250 for growing 52 pot plants, and $1,000 on the fish crime.

Additionally, in mid-January, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Roland D. Martin revoked Palmer’s fishing license for five years. And department biologists eradicated remaining adult and juvenile largemouth bass from two of his three makeshift small ponds, nearly five months after they removed eight adult largemouths from the third pond using an electronic-shocking device.

Palmer’s fish fine and lengthy license revocation were stiff because illegal fish stockings can potentially impact entire watersheds, according to Martin and Maine Warden Service Col. Thomas Santaguida.

“Private pond stocking is regulated because most private ponds overflow at certain times of the year, and, smaller fish in these ponds may be carried downstream into the state’s public waterways,” Warden Service and department spokesman Mark Latti said.

The Palmer incident is the latest in a long line of illegal fish introductions that threaten Maine’s native fisheries. In 2003, the Legislature recognized this, responding to threats of illegal stockings by enacting emergency legislation that increased fines.

Over the past two decades, department biologists have documented nearly 100 illegal introductions of native and non-native fish that threaten traditional and economically important fisheries for landlocked salmon, brook trout, Atlantic salmon, and other native Maine fishes. Besides bass, other illegally stocked fish include northern pike, black crappie, smelts, goldfish, koi, white perch, yellow perch, and others.

Once established, particularly in larger waters, these introductions are almost always irreversible, Latti said.

“I can understand why they’d fine him stiffly for the fish, because bass are aggressive and would go after trout if the ponds flooded into other waters, but $250 for the pot?” Oxford County Sheriff’s Cpl. Chancey Libby asked Thursday afternoon by phone in Paris.

It also didn’t come close to covering the amount of time and effort that Libby and other officers put into the cannabis case after being tipped off to plants growing on both Palmer’s Ahonen Road property and his neighbor and uncle, Stephen Holden’s property, Libby said.

On Sept. 22, Libby had a certified drug spotter in a Maine Army National Guard helicopter fly over both properties looking for pot plants, while he drove into Palmer’s yard to question the man. But before he reached the front door, Libby said he saw pot plants growing beside the house.

He then sought and served a search warrant for both properties, finding 52 well developed marijuana plants at Palmer’s house and 47 pot plants in and around Holden’s house. Holden’s case is pending because he’s contesting the cultivation charge, Libby added.

While searching Palmer’s property, Libby said officers saw fish swimming around in Palmer’s little backyard ponds, but didn’t think much about it.

“Then, we found skeletal remains in one of the outbuildings that we thought was a jacked deer, and called in the wardens. But when they got here, they were more interested in the fish,” Libby said.

Wardens obtained a search warrant a few days after Sept. 22 and found evidence of bass reproducing in one of the ponds, where juvenile bass were found with adults.

Due to the small size of the ponds and lack of food, the unhealthy bass were very light colored and thin, Latti said.

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