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Maine Anglers Don't Care if they Catch a Big Fish or Even a lot of Fish

March 13, 2016 - Augusta-Most Maine anglers don’t care if they catch a big fish, or even a lot of fish. According to a survey by Mark Duda of Responsive Management, 31% of Maine anglers fish primarily to spend time with family and friends. Another 31 percent fish for relaxation (that is not a fish species). Only 1 percent is out there trying to catch large fish. And 9 percent fish to be close to nature.

This reminded me of this statement, written by John Buchan:

The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

Apparently, we’re not all hoping for the same thing!

Duda’s survey is a key part of the preparation of new management plans for Maine’s fish species, and the survey results got a lot of discussion when he presented them to a recent meeting of DIF&W’s Fisheries Steering Committee, which represents various groups around the state and is working with the agency on the creation of these new plans. I attended the meeting to hear Duda’s presentation.

I was encouraged to learn that anglers are very supportive of conservation tactics and initiatives. Seventy seven percent support catch and release rules, 73% support low bag limits, 66% support slot limits, 65% support the creation of fly-fishing only waters, 63% support artificial lures only rules, 62% support high length limits, and 60% support prohibiting the use of live fish as bait.

According to Duda, the top priority of Maine anglers is the management of waters for the health of native fish populations wherever possible. I was so pleased to hear this! “Ecological values are more important than recreational values,” Duda noted. “The majority of your anglers are going to support this, your ecological decisions,” he said. It’s more than stocking a lot of fish or providing lots of big fish to catch. Good to know!

Maine anglers are satisfied with access to their favorite waters. Ninety one percent said they did not experience any access problems in the last year. Only 4% said they’d lost access due to posted land. “About 40 states across the U.S. would kill for that number,” Duda reported. He also asked anglers if access had gotten better, worse, or stayed the same over the past 5 years. Thirteen said better, 69% the same, 9% worse, and 10% didn’t know. “I very rarely see this. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this,” Duda said. 68 percent agreed that Maine has enough state-owned boat ramps. That surprises me, given that less than 10% of Maine’s lakes and ponds have boat access ramps.

Markets

Duda noted that, “There are a lot of different markets out there. You can’t focus just on big fish or the white male avid angler market.” And he said there are lots of casual anglers out there, contending that they are subsidizing the avid angler.

I think he’s wrong that the casual angler is subsidizing the avid angler. It’s just the opposite. DIF&W spends almost its entire fisheries budget on stocked fish, which are rarely the focus of the avid angler, and the casual angler is taking home far more fish they he/she is paying for.

Plans

Sheri Oldham of Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council seemed very skeptical of the survey data, asking if anglers are so happy, why the agency would change the management plans. She suggested that we set aside the survey responses and focus on management of the fishery. She said she doesn’t want this survey information to dominate the process instead of actual management of the fisheries, and noted that Mainers are very agreeable. “In terms of developing a management plan for the resource – if we do a good job with that – the people are going to be happy. We’re spending a lot of time and money on the surveys,” she concluded.

DIF&W’s Nate Webb, who is doing a superb job of guiding both the big game and the fisheries planning processes along and working with both Steering Committees, said they are streamlining plans, and seeking consultation with the Steering Committee, in order to establish a single statewide plan. What should be retained, and what should be left out, he asked, as they move into this new comprehensive plan?

Kleiner asked a good question. “We’ve got conflicts coming between species,” he said. “How are we going to resolve those?” Nate answered that he hopes this process will serve as a template for planning in the future, bringing a statewide perspective to the plans, essentially telling regional biologists that they, “Can’t just do what they want in each region.”

Kirby Holcombe of the Rangeley Lakes Sportsmen’s Association questioned how the agency defines fishing quality. He said that a definition would help him understand their objectives, noting that research is needed on the feasibility of stocking smelt. Kleiner also said that we ought to begin to put a marker down that there are disease issues, and we need to outline the range of possible responses.

Nate responded that he wants to start assigning tasks to the staff to get the plans underway. Kleiner responded that he was happy to have them start on generic documents, using the existing table of contents.

It surprises me that there is no talk about funding and staff, when the plans note they can’t be achieved due to lack of staff and funding. Nate notes that the plans are written for the staff, not the public, but he hopes to put them out into the public where they can be used.

In my opinion, the jury is out as to whether this process will result in significant changes to plans, get significant input by Steering Committee members, or if anglers will participate in the process and have any influence. It will be interesting to see how many turn out for the public meetings, and how many participate in the online forum. I am very skeptical that the process will result in anything more than what the biologists want. Some major issues (at least what I consider major issues) are being ignored, like the department’s almost total focus on stocked fish.

George Smith, George's Outdoor News, March 2016

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