Brook trout are one of Maine’s signature wildlife species, along with moose, loons and lobsters. Brookies, as they are often called, are part of the interior Maine brand, and their presence is an indication of a relatively healthy environment. As noted in an earlier column, Maine is home to several unique brook trout lifeforms.
While Maine is considered the last stronghold for wild native brook trout, like other states, we have lost a lot. In fact, wild brook trout have been greatly diminished in the southern part of the state, and that line is moving farther north each year as we continue to lose populations. They are also all but gone from several major northern watersheds such as the Chesuncook and Grand Lake systems.
With fewer than 300 never-stocked brook trout lakes and ponds left in the state, down from what was over 1,000, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, along with Dud Dean Angling Society and others, went to the Maine legislature in 2005 to try to gain some much needed protections for this unique and important resource. This resulted in the ground-breaking State Heritage Fish law.
The primary goal of the group was to stop stocking and the dangerous use of live fish as bait on never-stocked lakes and ponds. After being presented with the facts, the legislature took the unusual step of passing a law, rather than issuing a resolve which would have just asked the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to address it. This was a clear victory for brook trout as a law is much stronger than a policy.
The State Heritage Fish law was amended in 2007 by the Dud Dean Angling Society to include rare Arctic charr. In 2013, it was amended again to add lakes and ponds not stocked in 25 years or more, effectively doubling the number of protected waters. Subsequent amendments have been made to allow restoration stocking, and add and remove waters.
In 2020, an attempt to amend the State Heritage Fish law to extend the protections to their tributaries failed, but led to a prohibition on the use of live fish as bait by rule — not exception — in the critically important North Zone. Another amendment that would have aligned the rules for adding waters to the list with those used to create the list failed completely.
To be clear, Maine’s State Heritage Fish law has never stopped an active stocking program. And while the use of live fish as bait is prohibited, most of the waters where it was allowed are still open to worms and other bait. In no case were the bag or length limits changed as a result of the SHF law. So, the law has really just prevented the DIF&W from doing things in the future, not stopped the department from doing what it is doing today.
The North Zone live bait restriction is more preventive than corrective as well. Waters open to ice fishing were exempted, as were those with a “prevalent” history of live bait use. No water was closed to the use of worms, and like the State Heritage Fish law, bag and length limits were unaffected. Unfortunately, there is no provision that prohibits the DIF&W from stocking those water tributaries.
At roughly 585 waters, Maine’s State Heritage Fish law is one of the most widely implemented wild native trout programs in the nation. Unfortunately, it has some of the weakest, and most inconsistent, protections. Roughly 50 percent of the waters are open to worms and other bait which comes with a 30 percent incidental mortality rate. And approximately 55 percent of the waters are managed under the General Law — a five-fish limit and 6-inch length requirement — the minimum protection afforded brook trout in the state.
Due to political wrangling, important waters that qualified for inclusion under the State Heritage Fish law such as Fish River Lake, as well as Telos Lake, Round Pond, Chamberlain Lake, Churchill Lake and Eagle Lake in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, were omitted, mostly to allow the continued use of live fish as bait. These waters are too valuable to leave exposed for social reasons.
The not-stocked-in-25-years requirement for State Heritage Fish law inclusion was put forward by DIF&W at the request of the legislature. It is arbitrary and not based on science, as brook trout in Maine rarely reach 5 years old. A threshold of 10 years would be more than sufficient, and a much more accurate reflection of what denotes a self-sustaining brook trout population.
The criteria for adding waters to the law are problematic. It is at the discretion of the DIF&W commissioner, and based on criteria established by the commissioner. This has allowed things like “seasonal use” and “all age classes” to sneak in. Under these criteria, critically important deer yards and vernal ponds could be left unprotected, something we would never do.
Another problem is that the law does not apply to rivers and streams. As a result of the DIF&W’s lake- and pond-centric view of fisheries management, our rivers and streams don’t get nearly as much attention or protection as our stillwaters. It’s time Maine recognized its brook trout in moving water, especially large rivers and unique coastal streams.
Lastly, up until several years ago, our State Heritage Fish waters were not marked with signs. To address this, Native Fish Coalition worked with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the DIF&W to create informational signs that have been posted on nearly 300 waters to date using volunteers, and at no cost to the DIF&W or sportsmen. Unfortunately, these waters are not noted in the online or print fishing law book, a gross oversight.
When you consider what is at stake here — the last wild native brook trout lakes in ponds in Maine — wouldn’t it make sense to impose a minimum level of protection to all State Heritage Fish waters that exceeds the General Law? Would it not be prudent to eliminate high-impact tackle that results in one out of three fish caught dying? And wouldn’t it help to tell people what these waters are and what is expected of them?
When it comes to protecting our State Heritage Fish waters, Maine can and should do more. It’s time for some consistent and meaningful regulations on all our State Heritage Fish waters, not just those that had protective regulations before the law. And when it comes to adding new waters to the law, the emphasis should be on asking “Why not?” rather than “Why?”