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Grass roots fish management is risky

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Managing Maine’s incredible sport fishery — and its associated regulations — is complex and always subject to second guessing by arm-chair fisheries “biologists,” who may sincerely believe that they know how better to manage the fish in their favorite angling waters.

Dennis Smith of Otter Creek is one of those impassioned anglers who never tires of trying to impose his preferences upon the fisheries management decisions made by the professional state fisheries biologists.

Smith’s latest personal initiative is to use the democratic process to force the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to profoundly reduce the salmon take at Branch Lake, Green Lake and Phillips Lake in Hancock County by adding slot limits to the fishing regulations on these waters.

Currently on these lakes you can take two salmon 14 inches or longer. Under Smith’s proposal, all salmon between 18 and 22 inches would have to be released. Only one fish over 22 inches could be kept.

In early February a public hearing will be held in Ellsworth on Smith’s proposal. MDIF&W officials will take public input and then the Commissioner, in concert with the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council, will vote to adopt or reject Smith’s idea.

Is this a good idea? Maine’s state fisheries director, Francis Brautigam, believes that it is not. He points out that salmon management is a balancing act, and once you use slot limits to spike the salmon numbers in a water you then have a corresponding compromise of the smelt numbers – the salmon’s main forage base. Smith’s proposal, Brautigam says, is “high risk fisheries management” that is setting up for failure. In fact, for this reason, there are only a few Maine lakes where slot limits are currently used in regulating the salmon fishery. According to Downeast fisheries biologist Greg Burr, slot limits on salmon have rarely proven to produce positive results.

Of course, Smith, or any other citizen angler for that matter, has a right to his point of view and to push a personal agenda using the democratic process, the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Smith circulated a petition and was able to gather sufficient signatures that, in effect, required MDIF&W to give serious consideration to a fishing regulation rule change.

Smith gets high marks for his tenacity. However, his repeated attempts to markedly change state fishing regulations demonstrate apparent lack of trust in the management policies made by the state’s professional fisheries biologists. Indirectly, he is also dismissing the majority of anglers who are not big fans of slot limits, especially on landlocked salmon.

It seems doubtful that the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council will approve Smith’s proposed regulation change. And if past is prologue, Smith – undaunted – will keep on trying to do what he believes is right.

All of this is a reminder that the democratic process is not only messy, it can be costly and energy-consuming. The APA process is there for any of us who want to steer MDIF&W in a certain regulatory direction, but too often it squanders public money and resources that would be better spent on stocking programs and other important fisheries management programs.
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The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.

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