Invasive Plants and Maine Wardens
Colonel Joel Wilkinson of the Maine Warden Service recently acted quickly to turn a bad situation into a good learning opportunity, heading off an escalating cascade of angry emails by calling in all interests for a discussion and resolution of the issues.
In the process, Wilkinson changed the topic from “invasive wardens” to “invasive plants,” while demonstrating some flexibility in fixing a few glitches and misunderstandings.
The first notice I received about the problem was a June 29 email from Robert Williamson that started, “I just received a very disturbing phone call from one of the B.A.S.S. Federation clubs about significant problems that they ran into while holding an open event on Kezar Lake last weekend.”
This gentleman went on at length, describing the situation that he learned about “second hand.”
The initial account related that two game wardens turned up at a bass tournament to find that the boats were not being inspected for invasive plants, and cited tournament officials for the violation. They also ticketed two participants for keeping bass in their live wells after pulling out of the water.
The original account presented the wardens as overbearing, unreasonable, disruptive, and making up the tournament requirements as they went along.
Over a period of several days, we learned that a second bass tournament was also cited by game wardens for failing to inspect boats, and various interpretations of the tournament rules were bandied about, often making the Warden Service out to be unreasonable and incorrect in their interpretation of those rules.
Some of the issues included a requirement that tournaments provide two certified invasive plant inspectors at every launch site on the lake, inspect each boat before it is pulled out of the water, empty their live wells before pulling out of the water, and list all inspectors on their initial tournament application. The Warden Service was also criticized for not publicizing some of these requirements.
The issues became clearer to me when I received a July 1 email from John Trask, President of The Bass Federation (a different organization than B.A.S.S).
“I have no problem with the host club being cited for violating rule conditions,” wrote Trask, stepping up big time on this issue and impressing me.
Trask went on to express concern over some of the issues, including the fact that wardens kept boats in the water at the ramp for 45 minutes, waiting to be inspected and to empty their live wells, something Trask called “unacceptable, especially if there are pleasure boaters waiting to use the launch.”
“We need to figure out a procedure since most tournaments average 30-40 boats and this process at Kezar will take possibly more than 3 hours to pull 40 boats from the lake.”
Trask joined me and other interested parties, including the Congress of Lakes Association and state agencies, in meetings hosted by State Representative Jane Eberle during the 2010 legislative session. We learned a lot from each other and supported a pledge by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to vigorously enforce plant inspection rules at bass tournaments.
I guess that is really where this story started.
Colonel Wilkinson followed up on those meetings and our collective understandings by making enforcement of bass tournament inspection rules a focus for his staff this summer.
Responding quickly to the alarm and rumors that were now spreading via email all over the state, Wilkinson investigated the Kezar Lake incident and quickly issued a thorough explanation on July 7.
“After a careful review I am satisfied that you were provided information that was not completely accurate,” he wrote Williamson, “and that the two officers that were present acted appropriately in their education and enforcement posture in this situation.”
Here’s the scoop, straight from the Colonel.
Wardens Tony Gray and Josh Smith launched their boat on Kezar Lake about 3 pm to monitor a bass tournament. They parked their boat in the Narrows near the public boat landing where the tournament weigh-in was scheduled at 4:00 pm.
They watched the boats coming in, to check for compliance of the water safety zone law (no wake and headway speed only). They observed only two “minor” speed violations, and reported, “that the bass anglers were conscientious of the water safety zone.”
The wardens watched two boats leave the water and go to into the parking lot on boat trailers, without being inspected. They saw no inspectors in the launch area. So they loaded their boat on their trailer and went to the parking lot to see if boat inspectors were located there.
In the parking lot, they saw at least six boats but no inspectors. Anglers from those boats were taking their fish out of the boats’ live wells, putting them into bags of water, and walking them down to the weigh-in area.
Wardens checked out a small booth near the launch and found a young man who claimed to be the tournament’s plant inspector. The fellow first told wardens he had been inspecting the boats, but later recanted, saying he was watching the boats from his booth, sort of a drive-by inspection.
Eventually, a man stepped up to perform the inspections and the wardens allowed him to do so, even though the man was not listed on the tournament’s permit as one of their two inspectors.
The Wardens then talked with the tournament director, Ken Tuttle Sr. and reviewed the tournament permit issued to the group with the rules on the back. They also informed Mr. Tuttle that boats were not permitted to leave the water with fish in their live wells.
“Mr. Tuttle was very cordial and cooperative,” reported the wardens.
The wardens issued Mr. Tuttle a citation for violation of a bass tournament rule (failure to inspect the boats), and explained that it is a civil violation that could be settled simply by paying the specified fine.
To prepare for writing this blog entry, I posed a series of questions to Colonel Wilkinson. His prompt response resolved some of the issues.
The Colonel outlined the steps his agency took to inform bass clubs of the rules and their responsibilities, including at a meeting with bass clubs during the lottery at which their tournament dates are awarded. The rules are also printed on the back of the permit.
My thought: because we’re stepping up enforcement this year, due to a heightened concern about invasive plants and fish, the department probably should have done a bit more education of tournament officials.
Second, the Colonel reported, “It is expected that the high use launches have inspectors there… We recognize that it would be impossible to check all of the boat launches on some of the larger lakes. To help solve this problem we are encouraging the clubs to advertise one landing.”
Third, “Live fish can never be transported out or off the water. It would be a violation for the angler to trailer his boat into the parking area with live fish on board even if his intent was to bag the fish, weigh them, and return them to the water.”
“We have agreed that boats could be towed to the parking area of the launch site and drained there; however, at no time would live fish be allowed to be transported off the water,” said the Colonel, who also agreed that the inspections for invasive plants could be done in the parking lot, provided “that the distance from the ramp to the draining area be reasonable and under the control of the boat inspectors to insure that boats are being properly inspected.”
Finally, the Colonel reported that “boat inspectors do not need to be certified in boat inspection in order to be compliant with bass fishing tournament rules, (but) the boat inspectors do need to be listed on the permit and do need to be inspecting boats entering and leaving the tournament.”
The colonel reported that he and other DIF&W staff met with members of the Bass community on July 19 “and had a very productive meeting. We were able to understand collectively some of the issues on both sides and I feel confident that we made progress today.”
Three days after that, I got an emailed request from a leader of the Maine B.A.S.S. Federation for help in addressing this issue and problem.
He feels that bass anglers and tournaments have been damaged by the attitude of some legislators and others that bass anglers are responsible for the spread of invasive fish and plants.
He asked for my help in obtaining statistics from the Warden Service documenting their findings at bass tournaments. He expects this information will exonerate bass anglers and clubs, and demonstrate that they are stepping up responsibly to address the problems of invasive fish and plants.
And the bass beat goes on.