chamber of commerce

An Epidemic That Threatens a Maine Heritage
Monday, April 15, 2002
Over the past 15 years, an alarming number of illegal fish introductions have been carried out throughout the length and breadth of our state. Fishery biologists continue to discover new populations of species such as northern pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black crappie, bluegill and white catfish in waters where they previously did not exist. All too often, these new species have a negative impact on the resident brook trout, salmon, or smallmouth bass populations. The irresponsible, selfish actions of a relatively few misguided anglers results in a diminished fishery for thousands of anglers.

While anglers have been moving fish around Maine for many years, the number of such acts has exploded in recent years. It is extremely frustrating and disappointing for the state's fishery biologists to witness this epidemic as it continues out of control. We are charged with maintaining or improving the fisheries with which Maine has been so richly blessed. The actions of those who recklessly move fish around make it more difficult and in some cases, impossible, for us to do our job.

In many cases, it means that the great trout or smallmouth fishing you have enjoyed at your favorite ponds over the past 10-30 years is rapidly disappearing, and with very few exceptions, it is not coming back. For many veteran biologists such as myself, it's truly a heart-breaking experience to witness so many fisheries deteriorating in ways beyond our control. I believe that some who carry out these irreversible acts believe they are making fishing better. But what they fail to understand are the long-range consequences of their actions. Many people regret an action that produces a short-term gain, but long-term misery. It's no different in the world of fisheries. All too often, it turns out that a misguided short-term plus results in a serious long-term negative.

Currently, there are far too many examples throughout the state. But generally, the story goes something like this: Fishing for trout at a local pond is frustrating for a fisherman, who has caught few over the past few years. Looking for a way to improve his frequent fishing trips there, he moves about 20 bass from a nearby pond into his local pond, despite the fact that this trout water is surrounded by bass waters. Sure enough, within 5 years, he starts to catch some 2 � lb bass and a bunch of smaller 8-10 inch fish. These larger bass thrive at the expense of the native brook trout, whose numbers will continue to decline due to the direct actions of one angler.

Another huge problem is that perpetrators of these transfers don't realize the potential for many species to migrate out of the target water into other waters within the drainage. In most cases, the target Lakes are connected via tributaries or outlets to other waters, and as the years go by, largemouth bass or crappie begin to appear in other waters in the drainage. This is yet another reason why the term "epidemic" is so apropos in describing the extent of the problem. For fishery biologists and conscientious Maine anglers, it's frightening to contemplate what the Maine scene will look like 20 years from now if the current trend continues unabated.

A recent study by the University of Maine showed that fishing has an economic impact of nearly $300 million in the state. Many anglers journey to our state in search of wild brook trout, landlocked salmon, and smallmouth bass. Maine offers some of the very best fishing for these popular sportfish along the eastern seaboard from New Jersey northward. It's these species which annually attract thousands of anglers to our state with resulting in a huge economic impact. For several areas in Washington County, income derived from guiding and catering to these non-resident "sports" is an extremely important part of yearly revenues. Our great state will suffer economically as more sports decide it's no longer worth the long trip to Maine where they have been privileged to enjoy relatively unique, high quality angling from 1960-1990.

For generations, anglers from the eastern seaboard have journeyed to Maine to catch wild brook trout in the Rangeley area, Moosehead Lake area, and many northern locales. They've come to catch leaping landlockeds at Chamberlain Lake, East Grand Lake, West Grand Lake, the West Branch of the Penobscot River, Kennebago River, and Grand Lake Stream. Smallmouth enthusiasts have come to fish storied waters like Big Lake, Cobbossecontee Lake, various waters in the the Belgrade Lakes region, and numerous waters in southern Maine. It's especially sad that some of these truly legendary haunts which have provided so many fond memories for so many over the years are now threatened by illegal fish introductions carried out by a handful. Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist Rick Jordan, who works out of the Downeast headquarters in Jonesboro, is the author of the bass species plan. In his recent update, this table appears:

Unauthorized bass introductions in Maine since 1986
Region LMB SMB Total
A 11 2 13
B 11 0 11
C 2 11 13
D 1 8 9
E 3 0 3
F 4 4 8
G 1 1 2
State 33 26 59

Although the majority of these illegal introductions occurred in the three coastal regions (A, B, and C), western and northern Maine were not immune.

Thirty years ago, in the trout and salmon strongholds of the Rangeley and Moosehead regions, it would have been practically "unthinkable" to say that largemouth bass would appear in these areas by 2000. The impact of these introductions are that when either species of bass gains a foothold in a brook trout pond, it's just a matter of time (usually only a few years) before the trout fishery collapses. Because bass are much more aggressive than trout, they easily out-compete trout for food. Both survival and growth of trout declines markedly once bass gain a foothold.

The other adverse impact is commonly observed when largemouth bass are transferred into a smallmouth bass water. Because largemouths are more aggressive than smallmouths, they eventually become dominant. The end result is that the number of 2-4 lb smallmouths a pond can produce is reduced. It's important to keep in mind that one of our state's big three calling cards is the chance to catch smallmouth bass, not largemouths. Let's take a look at some of the consequences of the more notorious illegal fish introductions around Maine.

Long Pond in Belgrade: this is one of the most tragic case histories. From the 1960's through the early 1990's, this was the premier salmon water in central Maine where anglers flocked for a chance at a trophy 4-6 lb landlocked. In most years, it yielded enough of these trophy salmon to warrant inclusion on the exclusive list of waters providing fisheries of statewide significance for large salmon, along with the likes of Long Lake, Rangeley Lake, East Grand Lake and Parker Pond. Sadly, illegal introductions of pike, landlocked alewives, and crappie have recently occurred. Pike have had a devastating impact on the salmon through predation. From the day salmon are stocked as 7-8 inch spring yearlings, until they reach lengths of perhaps 17-18 inches, they are suitable forage for the voracious pike.

Because many pike inhabit the deeper, cooler water in the summer, this puts them in the same zone as the salmon. Needless to say, a 9- 11 inch salmon fresh out of the hatchery is easy pickings for a 5-10 lb pike. In addition to preying on salmon, pike also eat smelt, thereby reducing the number of this critically important forage species available for salmon.

Regional biologist Jim Stahlnecker reports a dramatic decline in trap-net catches of salmon. Whereas annual trapnet catches formerly averaged over 50 salmon, the catch plummeted to four in 2000 and none last year. The low catches are directly attributed to predation by pike. Jim cites solid supportive data for this assertion in the form of readily visible pike scars on salmon. Jim reports "the proportion of netted salmon showing scarring increased dramatically from the single digits in the early 1990's to 37% in 1999 to 75% (3 out of the 4) in 2000."

In a last ditch effort to re-establish some semblance of a salmon fishery, Jim has initiated experimental stockings of large fall yearlings in the hope that more of these fish will avoid ending up in pike stomachs. These larger fish cost the state more to raise, and many days of staff time over many years will be required to assess the performance of these stockings. The bottom line is that the pike introduction has nearly wiped out a first-rate salmon fishery, and is costing the state dearly in efforts to remedy it. These funds and labor could have been directed at other regional programs if pike had never been introduced.

The introduction of landlocked alewives is the second part of the "double-whammy" to befall Long Pond This species competes strongly with smelt for zooplankton. In many lakes, they eventually dominate and smelt hang on at greatly reduced densities. Currently, the smelt population is threatened by the exploding landlocked alewife population. The bottom line is that these transfers set in motion a chain of events with disastrous impacts on a famous salmon fishery of statewide significance.

The Rapid River, Umbagog Lake and Upper Androscoggin River drainage, Oxford County: smallmouths were illegally introduced about 1985 into Umbagog Lake. Since then, they have spread into the Rapid River which supports a world-class wild brook trout fishery with fish up to 5 pound. This river was recently named as the best brook trout fishery in the lower 48 by Sports Afield Magazine. This fishery will inevitably decline with the passage of time. To make matters worse, in addition to the smallmouths mentioned above, northern pike were illegally introduced into Umbagog and have now moved downstream into the Androscoggin River where they will prey on the river's salmon and trout.

Durepo Lake in Limestone, Aroostook County: this small impoundment on Limestone Stream formerly supported a good fishery for wild 7-10 in brook trout. Largemouth bass fry were illegally introduced in the spring of 2001. After receiving an extremely valuable and timely report from an angler who reported a strange fish he caught while trout fishing, fishery biologists captured a bunch of 5-7 inch largemouths in July-August. After determining that reclamation (a technique involving the application of rotenone which kills all fish in a Pond) was feasible, Regional Biologist Dave Basley strongly recommended an emergency reclamation. Durepo Lake is located in the heart of some of the best wild brook trout country in Aroostook County and Maine. Dave's recommendation was endorsed by Fishery Division Director Peter Bourque and Commissioner Lee Perry. The reclamation project apparently achieved a complete kill of the largemouths. Anglers in eastern Aroostook County certainly owe a huge pat on the back to the angler who thoughtfully reported his strange catch and to Dave Basley and his staff for a job well done! They have succeeded in eliminating a potentially devastating population of largemouths, thereby preserving, at least for now, the significant wild trout fisheries of the Limestone stream drainage.

The notorious Durepo Lake incident illustrates what we can do to preserve a trout fishery on a small water if we receive a timely tip from you folks.

Unfortunately, in the overwhelming majority of cases, these illegal introductions occur on medium-large bodies of waters, and we are powerless to do anything to alleviate the problem. That's what makes this epidemic so scary. Wardens are keeping their antennae out but need greater cooperation from folks in alerting them to potential introductions. We are currently printing thousands of business-size cards which will be distributed by fishery biologists and wardens this spring. The cards contain relevant information on this problem, along with the phone number to call (Operation Game Thief, 1-800-alert-us) if you have information. Those are just three examples of illegal stockings, but unfortunately, they happen in every county in the state. Here are some further examples of how far reaching these illegal activities have occurred. It's my hope that by citing the gory details of these actions, you'll better appreciate the magnitude and seriousness of the problem. Here's a sample of the casualty list from around the state:

Lily Pond in New Gloucester: this small Pond formerly supported a good brook trout fishery with some trout reaching 2-3 lbs . Illegal introductions of largemouth bass about 1967 and crappie in the mid 1990's have severely compromised the size and quality of the brook trout fishery.

Parker Pond in Casco: this water formerly supported a very good smallmouth fishery, including some fish in the 2-4 lb range. An illegal introduction of largemouths has adversely impacted the numbers of such highly prized smallmouths.

Stanley Pond in Hiram: this 137-acre water formerly provided good fishing for smallmouths. An unauthorized introduction of largemouths has produced a fishery wherein largemouths predominate in angler catches. The smallmouth fishery is a mere shadow of its former self.

Little Ossipee Lake in Waterboro: this water has suffered three illegal introductions...white perch, crappie, and cusk ... within the past 10 years. The perch and cusk are feeding on smelt thereby adversely impacting the growth rate of stocked salmon.

Keyes Pond in Sweden: this water formerly supported a very good brook trout fishery. An illegal transfer of largemouth bass around 1990 has produced a greatly diminished trout fishery.

Long Pond in Denmark, Shagg Pond in Woodstock, and Cushman Pond in Sumner: Regional biologist John Boland reports his ability to manage these waters for brook trout has been substantially compromised by illegal fish introductions. The culprits are smelt, banded killifish, bullhead, and golden shiners in Long Pond; yellow perch, pumpkinseed sunfish, golden shiner, and banded killifsh in Shagg; bullhead and golden shiners in Cushman Pond.

Little Sabattus Pond in Greene, Taylor Pond in Auburn, and Winnegance Pond in Phippsburg: these waters support northern pike as a result of unauthorized transfers. While none previously supported any notable fisheries, biologist Francis Brautigam reports their presence is a matter of considerable concern as they may spread into additional waters.

Great Moose Pond in Hartland: this water formerly supported a good fishery for 2-4 lb smallmouths in the spring as these fish chased smelt up Main Stream. An illegal introduction of largemouths in 1995 will likely result in fewer trophy smallmouths.

Pemaquid Pond in Nobleboro: this water formerly produced some good winter angling for 2-3 lb smallmouths. An illegal introduction of largemouths in 1995 will undoubtedly diminish angling quality for smallmouths.

(Region C) Round Pond in T10SD: this small water in the Tunk Stream drainage formerly supported a modest fishery for 2 -3 lb brook trout. Smallmouth bass were illegally introduced in the early 1990's, and have quickly established a thriving population. Despite restrictive regulations on brook trout and a no size or bag limit rule on bass, the trout population now is merely a "relic" one. What is especially troubling is that the Tunk Stream drainage was the most pristine in Downeast Maine with no bass, perch, or pickerel in any lakes...just salmon, trout, togue, suckers, and various minnows. Tunk Lake, the third deepest Lake in Maine, and a lake of statewide significance with its superb water quality, togue, and salmon lies at the head of the drainage.

Donnell Pond in Franklin: this water supports a salmon fishery, and in the better years, anglers catch 2-3 lb fish. Wild salmon, produced in the outlet, usually comprise from 30-45% of the catch. An illegal recent introduction of smallmouth bass will adversely impact recruitment of wild salmon into the fishery. Those bass which reside in the outlet will eat the young of the year salmon and compete for food with the larger 5-6 inch salmon parr. The demonstrated ability of the outlet to produce hundreds of young wild salmon will be substantially diminished.

Indian Lake in Whiting: back in the mid 1970's, following a reclamation, this water supported an excellent brook trout fishery. Anglers caught lots of plump 9-11 inch fish, along with good numbers of 13-15 inch fish. I know because I measured some of these larger trout (some of the prettiest brookies I've ever seen) over a two-year period on some weekend days in April. Suckers, yellow perch, and numerous minnows eventually swam around the barrier dam and up into the Pond, greatly diminishing the quality of the trout fishery. But the real "death knell" for the trout was an illegal introduction of smallmouth bass in the mid 1990's. Now, anglers catch lots of small 8-10 inch bass which exert severe competitive pressure on the trout. It's sad for me to recall those good ol' days in the mid 1970's when I observed some outstanding catches of trout.

Third Pond in Blue Hill: largemouths were illegally stocked here about 1988. Although no sport fisheries were jeopardized, the bass have moved downstream into Second Pond. If they move further downstream into First (Billings) pond, they will imperil one of the premier wild brook trout fisheries in the region. Yet another example of where the short-sighted actions of some idiot who wanted "to have something to catch" in Third Pond" years later threatens an outstanding wild brook trout fishery which provides consistent action for dozens of anglers each winter.

Toddy pond in Orland, Alamoosook Lake in Orland, Rocky Lake in T18ED, Second Hadley Lake in T18ED, Round Pound, in T19ED, and Hadley Lake in East Machias: all these waters support noteworthy smallmouth bass fisheries because they offer anglers a good chance to hook up with a 2- 3 lb fish and occasionally, a 4-5 lb trophy fish. Largemouths have been illegally introduced into Toddy and Alamoosook, and I expect the fishery for large smallmouths to decline. The other four waters are in the East Machias drainage, where largemouths have moved down the drainage after being illegally transferred into the headwater lakes, Pocomoonshine and Crawford in the mid 1970's. Fishing quality for large smallmouth bass, one of Washington County's main attractions, will only go downhill in future years.

Penobscot Valley and Eastern Maine
(Region F) East Grand Lake: this legendary salmon water has attracted non-residents for decades who eagerly awaited word of "ice-out" to head north and hook up with leaping salmon, some of which reached weights of 4-5 lb. Up until the mid-1990's, this water produced some of the very best salmon fishing (winter and summer) in the state. However, an illegal introduction of landlocked alewives has caused a precipitous decline in the formerly abundant smelt population. The single most important reason for East Grand's premier fishery was its ability to sustain smelts at high abundance year in and year out. That very special ability has been largely wiped out by the alewives which easily outcompete smelt for zooplankton. Regional Biologist Mike Smith reports "the illegal introduction of alewives into East Grand Lake has decimated the smelt population, resulting in irregular salmon growth and the closure of the lake to the taking of smelt by dipnet. I am considering a reduction in the salmon stocking rate because of salmon growth problems."

Ice fishermen formerly enjoyed a terrific fishery because they fished their baits 2-4 feet under the ice knowing that's where the salmon would be chasing smelt. Now, the salmon may be down 20 ft, or 40 ft , chasing alewives. This unpredictability has resulted in substantially reduced winter catch rates.

East Branch of the Penobscot River: this river supports a good brook trout fishery. Mike reports that an unauthorized smallmouth bass introduction has resulted in bass moving up the East Br. above Grand Pitch, jeopardizing the trout fishery below Matagamon Lake.

Lower and Upper Shin Ponds; these waters formerly supported good trout fisheries. A recent illegal introduction of smallmouths will eventually ruin these fisheries.

Stump Pond, Cambolasse Pond and Long Pond in Lincoln: these waters formerly supported very good smallmouth bass fisheries. An unauthorized transfer of largemouths around 1995 has already reduced fishing quality at Stump POND The outlet of Stump flows into the Penobscot R. and it's probably inevitable that largemouths will move downstream into the Penobscot. Once they do, the present-day world-class smallmouth fishery will be irreparably diminished.

Western Maine
(Region D) Upper Kennebec River, Somerset County: smallmouths from an earlier illegal introduction have moved into the main stem and some tributaries. They have moved into the Dead River and certain tributaries. These waters support good wild brook trout, salmon, and rainbow trout fisheries now, but the outlook is poor as bass increase in abundance and range.

Ellis Pond in Roxbury: black crappie were recently illegally introduced here...a new species for this part of the state.

East Carry Pond in Carrying Place Town: this water is famous for its wild brook trout fishery. A recent illegal introduction of smelt threatens reproductive success of the shoreline spawning trout as smelt will eat trout fry, i.e. newly hatched trout.

Our best chance to slow down this on-going tragedy is through better public education. Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of the scope and seriousness of the problem, and realize that these terrible deeds are ruining not only your fishing, but your children and grand-children's fishing opportunities. Please help us by doing your part.

This is what you can do to help stop the spread of illegal introductions:
1) attempt to persuade any friends, acquaintenances, whoever, to not carry out any introductions, pointing out that the long-term consequences can be devastating.
2) Report any pertinent information to any Maine Game Warden.
3) Support much stiffer penalties for anyone convicted of these reckless acts. Rather than a "slap on the wrist", appropriate punishment in the form of mandatory jail time, mandatory minimum fine of $20,000, impounding the culprit's boat, motor, canoe, vehicle, and a life-time revocation of a fishing/hunting license is warranted.

After all, what's at stake is the future well-being of a priceless natural resource which generates big bucks (hundreds of millions of dollars annually, easily dwarfing the contribution of the lobster, blueberry, or potato industries) to Maine's economy. If this epidemic continues unabated, the day will come when our fisheries resemble the hodgepodge fisheries of states like Massachusetts and New Jersey. With each passing year, we are losing some of the extremely valuable uniqueness of our terrific brook trout, salmon, and smallmouth bass fisheries. I'm from New Jersey originally and greatly appreciate the vast difference in the freshwater fisheries provided by Maine and New Jersey. It's with considerable pride that I tell you there is still a huge difference today, but will I be able to make this claim in 25 years? I certainly hope so, but the answer will ultimately depend on whether you folks can partner with us in making a strong effort to stem this raging epidemic.

Designed & Maintained by Judy Craig Consulting - Updated: January 2004