The illegal introduction of invasive largemouth bass into the St. Croix River watershed last year has prompted the state to change its fishing regulations to try to limit its growth in population and the spread of the fish into nearby lakes and rivers. The new regulations took effect on January 2.
The introduction of invasive fish species "is at epidemic levels" in the Downeast region, with people frequently moving them into new bodies of water, according to Greg Burr, regional fisheries biologist for the Downeast area for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Since 2006, approximately 80 new fish introductions have been documented by fisheries biologists in the state.
The introduction of invasive fish endangers native fish populations and "changes the ecosystem forever," says Burr. "It's irreversible." The biologist notes that the state is working to protect native brook trout populations and trying to restore Atlantic salmon runs, but the addition of largemouth bass in trout waters will change the ecosystem to bass waters, with the wild brook trout eliminated. The largemouth bass even can affect areas where the state is stocking trout. "Largemouth bass are a very adaptable fish and are predatory on native species. They can eliminate them. It's changing what we know to be our state."
"Largemouth bass have the potential to outcompete, both for food and space, smallmouth bass, which are a very important sport fish in the St. Croix," Burr points out. Fishing guides make much of their living from the smallmouth bass fishery, and lodges and sporting camps depend on sport fishermen coming to the area to fish for them. "Smallmouth bass are a great fighting fish, and the area is known for them. It's what anglers want."
Smallmouth bass, though, are also an invasive species, having been introduced into the watershed in 1878, Burr notes, and he says the state does not want those fish introduced into new bodies of water in Maine either.
The first reports of largemouth bass being in the watershed were received in the summer of 2011, and biologists didn't confirm their presence until this past summer. Burr says the fish were brought in by people, he assumes on purpose. They were introduced in such numbers as to be able to reproduce and are being found in the Grand Falls Flowage area.
"It's a selfish act to move fish around," Burr says, noting that the largemouth bass are easy for fishermen to catch, unlike trout or salmon. He comments, "It reflects how our society is moving. People like that which is easy and immediate."
The penalty for introducing an invasive species into a Maine watershed includes a fine up to $10,000, along with surrender of one's fishing equipment. "We take introducing a new fish species pretty seriously," says Burr. Along with the penalties, education is an important part of the strategy in trying to prevent the introduction of invasive species, he adds.
Burr says the largemouth bass can't be eliminated from a watershed once they are introduced. "We just try to suppress them." He predicts they will spread into much of the lower St. Croix watershed and could move into Spednic Lake and possibly West Grand Lake.
The department is encouraging fishermen to catch and kill the fish, with new regulations having taken effect in time for the ice fishing season. Burr notes that it is important that fishermen know how to tell the difference between smallmouth and largemouth bass, since the smallmouth bass fishery has special regulations that are quite strict. The main difference is that the jaw on the smallmouth bass does not extend past the middle of the eye, while it does on the largemouth bass. Also, largemouth bass have a black lateral band on their side.
At its December meeting, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council approved changes to help suppress invasive largemouth bass in Washington County waters. Largemouth bass can be taken and killed from any of the listed water bodies that are open for ice fishing. The regulation changes are as follows: Big Lake, Grand Lake Stream and Musquash Stream, both seasons, add no size or bag limit on largemouth bass; Grand Falls Flowage, including Tomah Stream, both seasons, add all smallmouth bass caught must be released alive at once and add no size or bag limit on largemouth bass; Woodland Flowage and St. Croix River from Grand Falls Dam to Milltown Dam, open water season, add all fish must be released alive at once except no size or bag limit on largemouth bass; Woodland Flowage, both seasons, add no size or bag limit on largemouth bass; Grand Lake Stream, open water season, add no size or bag limit on largemouth bass; Lewy Lake, including Huntley Brook, and Long Lake, both seasons, add no size or bag limit on largemouth bass; St. Croix River, from Vanceboro Dam down to tidewater in Calais, open water season, add no size or bag limit of largemouth bass; Spednic Lake and the St. Croix River from Mud Lake to Spednic Lake, open water season, add no size or bag limit on largemouth bass and closed to taking of smallmouth bass; and Spednic Lake, ice fishing, add closed to taking of smallmouth bass and no size or bag limit on largemouth bass.
Other changes that were approved by the advisory council included adding several lakes -- Simpson Pond, Rocky, Pennamaquan, Orange, Round and Schoodic lakes -- to the list of water bodies exempted from the 25-inch maximum length limit for landlocked salmon and brown trout.