Atlantic salmon once abounded in all New England states. Now they’re restricted to Maine, where they’re federally endangered. Fishing for them is illegal. Throughout history, the species has intrigued and inspired. Twenty thousand years ago, Cro-Magnons marveled at this torch of life flashing through European rivers and rendered it on cave walls. Until recently, the U.S. population appeared doomed, but the Downeast Salmon Federation is achieving stunning success by raising fish with “tough love,” exposing them to real-world rigors including unfiltered river water. On the Penobscot, vastly improved fish passage is spiking runs. Last year, 1,426 salmon returned.
White perch, true bass with all the game qualities of their striped-bass cousins, are misidentified as perch and panfish. They don’t eat snails, so they’re free of yellow grubs, and they’re fine table fare. Mainers adore them. There’s no general-law regulation, but some communities have imposed 25-fish daily limits — to the pique of biologists. Whites, which have been unleashed in hundreds of systems where they don’t belong, tend to proliferate, stunt, and overwhelm ecosystems. In East Pond, one of the Belgrades, the state reduced nutrients and resulting blue-green algae blooms by removing 9 tons of introduced white perch.
Landlocks are smaller than sea-run Atlantics but morphologically identical and just as aerobatic. In spring, they feed near the surface. In summer, the preferred method of catching them is deep-trolling. “Landlocked” is a misnomer. New research indicates that instead of being trapped in lakes by falling sea levels, some sea-run salmon decided to stay. Landlocks are native to only four Maine lakes but have been introduced to at least 170 others and 44 streams, not always with happy results. In the Rangeleys, they helped exterminate superabundant dwarf Arctic char that had provided forage for a race of giant, hump-backed brook trout.
The bellies of brook trout are red as Yankee sunsets, fins trimmed with ivory, chestnut flanks adorned with scarlet flecks ringed with azure halos. Few Maine streams lack brook trout, and no state has as many in still water; elsewhere in New England there are essentially none. Almost 600 of Maine’s 1,200 lakes managed for brookies are listed under the Heritage Fish Law, which protects wild trout from genetic contamination by hatchery stock and bans live-fish bait. Today, the species occupies less than 5 percent of its original U.S. range, making Maine a trustee for this national treasure.
Yellow perch are the most cherished warmwater fish in the northern U.S. because no other is better eating. And yet, Mainers tend to revile them. While yellow perch are Maine natives, they’ve been flung around the state like confetti, devastating populations of brook trout, and they are frequently parasitized by “yellow grubs,” larvae of trematodes infesting herons. Snails pick up excreted eggs; perch eat the snails. Yellow grubs, harmless to humans, are easily popped out with a knife. Catching 25 yellow perch (or more; there’s no limit) is eminently unchallenging. Otherwise, you can order 25 frozen ones from Canada for $145.
Maine is the only contiguous state still supporting Arctic char. Elsewhere in New England, they’ve been extirpated by stocked species, such as lake trout, which hybridized them out of existence. In fall spawning, males glow with impossible hues of red, orange, and gold. Alas, much of the public perceives fish as food or rod benders, not wildlife, and as one state report notes, “Anglers have little interest in Arctic char due to the fish’s lack of sporting qualities.” To its admirers, though — including members of the Maine-based Native Fish Coalition, the species’ chief advocate — catching and releasing an Arctic char is equivalent to a Yankee birder encountering, say, a red-headed woodpecker.
Beware the Frankenfish
Native-fish advocate Ted Williams warns, hybridized hatchery fish pose a genetic threat to Maine’s heritage species.
Have you heard of “doose,” deer-moose hybrids concocted to occupy habitat unfit for either parent and to provide more venison and larger antlers?
No, you haven’t, because creating such monstrosities from wild mammals would be unthinkable. But because fish are too rarely considered wildlife by the public, or even most fisheries managers, hatchery-produced “frankenfish,” mostly sterile, are all the rage across the U.S. and Canada. Maine managers, for example, fertilize lake trout eggs with brook trout sperm to make “splake,” aptly described by Native Fish Coalition executive director Bob Mallard as “the hair in a $100 meal.” Advocates for splake would have us believe they and other frankenfish benefit sportsmen, that they’re needed to create quality fisheries in waters where other hatchery species struggle. But splake stocking has long been opposed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
It is said splake don’t spawn, but no one told the splake. In the Great Lakes region, splake not only reproduce but also transfer their warped genes to two natives — lake trout and “coasters,” an imperiled race of giant brook trout. Once the gene pool of these native species is soiled, there’s no getting our native fish “back.” In one sample of 15 alleged splake caught in Lake Superior, two turned out to be splake–lake trout hybrids, two splake-coaster hybrids, and one the result of a splake mating with a splake. Splake are showing up in some of Maine’s finest brook-trout rivers, including the Rapid, Magalloway, Dead, Kennebec, Seboeis, and Penobscot.
Other state and provincial managers defile aquatic ecosystems not only with splake but with wildly popular “golden rainbows” (mutant, pigment-impoverished rainbow trout), “tiger muskies” (muskellunge-pike crosses), “wipers” (white- bass–striped-bass crosses), and “tiger trout” (brown-trout–brook-trout crosses — cocktails not just of species but genera). “We have to make up our minds,” says Kurt Beardslee, director of the Duvall, Washington–based Wild Fish Conservancy. “Do we want a circus environment with bizarre creatures to amuse us? Or do we want to restore healthy ecosystems?”
Ted Williams serves as national chair of the Native Fish Coalition.
Photo Credits: University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank (White Perch, Landlocked Salmon); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Atlantic Salmon, Brook Trout). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Yellow Perch, Arctic Char)