Maine's Environmental Glad Game
Remember Pollyanna? She’s the title character of a 1913 best-seller and 1960 movie and her name has become a synonym – often a sarcastic one – for an optimistic philosophy. It centers on her "Glad Game," which involves finding something to be glad about in every situation. She learned it from her missionary father one Christmas when Pollyanna hoped to find a doll in a barrel of donations, but discovered crutches instead. And how can you be glad about that? Because "we don't need them!" her father said.
As part of my job at the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton, I’ve been training courtesy boat inspectors the past few weeks and worrying that the outlook is rather grim: 30 waters infested with invasive aquatic plants; milfoil revenues flat; control and prevention programs expensive, etc. etc. etc. So how can I be glad about that? Because at least we’re not trying to figure out how to stop illegal fish introductions.
“Nobody really has an answer,” John Boland, head of the Fisheries Division at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
At least invasive aquatic plants, like milfoil, usually arrive by accident, not design. And sometimes illegal fish introductions, too, are unplanned, such as when an angler dumps unused baitfish. But the biggest threat to Maine’s fishing are the “bucket biologists” who simply decide they’d like to fish for a particular species in a more convenient location. Using a boat's live well, a cooler or just a bucket, they are illegally introducing fish — bass, crappies, horn pout, perch, pike, smelt, walleyes and others — without regard for the permanent, long-term, widespread damage they may cause.
“Of all the fish and game violations I can think of, this is definitely the one that potentially can have the most significant consequences," says Dennis McNeish, IFW fisheries planner.
Just think of each water body as a pie with only so many pieces. Each water can produce a certain amount of food and has a certain amount of habitat. Every time a new group is added, everybody else has to move over, eat less and spend more resources on defense. Not all populations are equal in the struggle to survive. Some fish, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, are very successful colonists. They're aggressive and versatile in what they eat and where they can thrive. So they have a distinct competitive advantage over less adaptable species, such as brook trout.
In a 2004 report, the fisheries division calculated “between 1980 and 2000, bass became established in 196 new waters, an increase of about 47 percent. This expansion resulted almost entirely from illegal stockings. Over a 15-year period between 1985 and 2000 the number of new black crappie populations increased by 500 percent (from 13 to 64). Over a four-year period between 2001 and 2004, the number of documented new northern pike populations increased by 300 percent (from 9 to 30). Illegal stocking of native species like golden shiners, yellow perch, white perch and cusk are also just as widespread.”
Moving fish into a watershed is so easy, but getting them out? Impossible in large waters and difficult even in small ones, where biologists must “reclaim” a pond with poison.
Anglers know this. IFW, fishing groups and fishermen themselves have gotten the word out. But the illegal introductions just keep coming. Bass, for example, were recently discovered in waters above Brassua Lake, Boland said, and “that’s going to impact a huge area, from Jackman to Moosehead.”
It’s punishable by fines up to $10,000. IFW also offers a reward of $2,000 for information leading to the apprehension of persons responsible. (Call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-253-7887.) But it’s a very tough case to make. Years may pass before anyone even knows a crime was committed. The statute of limitations can be over by then. The trail of evidence will be very cold -- if it exists at all. The only successful prosecution I’ve heard of was two men who dumped white perch into Moosehead Lake in 1984 and got caught because they bragged about it.
Some illegal stockers believe they're improving the fishing and sometimes people are happy with the results. No one complains, for example, about the pike placed in Sabattus Pond or about places where bass fishing has taken off. But bucket biologists usually just make matters worse. Smelt are introduced into wild trout ponds in a misguided effort to give trout more to eat, but though trout will eat smelt, smelt also will eat young trout. Great fisheries can be ruined, like Long Pond in the Belgrades, where pike have virtually ousted the salmon. Those who love the Rapid River, a world-class trout fishery, have been battling to save it since smallmouth bass (illegally stocked in Umbagog Lake) appeared in 2001.
The latest high-profile pike discoveries were at Sebago Lake in 2003 and in Pushaw Lake in 2004. At Sebago, pike are gaining a real foothold, Boland says, and likely will begin to occupy other waters nearby. From Pushaw, pike have gotten into the Penobscot River, where – surprisingly, Boland says — their reproduction has been very low. Still, they’re at the center of a controversy about the state’s $24 million plan to restore diadromous fish (which migrate between fresh and salt waters) to the Penobscot River. Opponents say a bypass at Howland Dam will allow pike to enter the Piscataquis watershed and wreak havoc. Public hearings were held recently and next week officials at IFW and the Department of Marine Resources will sort through the comments.
So bad as milfoil is, we can be glad Maine has a workable system aimed at preventing and controlling invasive aquatic plants. But even Pollyanna would have a hard time finding something to be glad about illegal fish introductions.
“There is no magic bullet,” Boland says. “A lot of states have totally thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re not spending millions of dollars trying to stop this.’”
Roberta Scruggs has written about Maine's environment for more than two decades.