Meeting Minutes

August 8, 2023 @ 9:30am
353 Water Street, 4th floor conference room
Augusta, ME
(and virtually via Microsoft Teams)

Judy Camuso, Commissioner
Dan Scott, Warden Service Colonel
Mark Latti, Communications Director
Nate Webb, Wildlife Division Director
Jen Vashon, Game Management Section Supervisor
Francis Brautigam, Director of Fisheries & Hatcheries
Joe Overlock, Fisheries Management Supervisor
Liz Thorndike, Fisheries Resource Supervisor
Kory Whittum, Fisheries Planner
Dakota Stankowski, Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator
Becky Orff, Secretary/Recorder

Kristin Peet (Chair)
John Neptune
Roger Grant
Eric Ward
Al Cowperthwaite
Bob Duchesne - via Teams
Ed Pineau via Teams
Mike Gawtry via Teams
Shelby Rousseau (vice-chair) via Teams

3 in person
9 additional staff and public online

I. Call to Order

Kristin Peet, Council Chair, called the meeting to order.

I-A. Pledge of Allegiance

II. Moment of Silence

III. Introductions

Introductions were made.

IV. Acceptance of Minutes of Previous Meeting

A motion was made by Mr. Cowperthwaite to approve the minutes of the previous meeting and that was seconded by Mr. Ward.

Vote: eight (8) in favor; one (1) abstained (Mr. Neptune) minutes approved.

V. Rulemaking

A. Step 3

There were no items under Step 3.

B. Step 2

  1. Ch. 1 & 1-A Fishing Regulations/State Heritage Waters 2024 &
  2. Ch. 2 Bass Tournament/Fishing Derby rule

Mr. Brautigam stated the public comment period had closed and a public hearing was held. During the public hearing we had about 16 members of the public that provided testimony. A summary of the comments had been provided to the Council, and Mr. Brautigam went over the highlights. During the public hearing most of the comments were provided by members of the organized bass fishing community and they had more of a concern particularly with the prohibition of bass tournaments in the north zone. There were 43 written comments received, and about 21% of those were not germane to the packet. The written comments focused on north zone bass tournament rules, the north zone special bass regulations and state heritage fish waters. Mr. Brautigam went over the comment highlights by theme in the proposal.

The bass tournament rules, there were people both for and against the rule packet. Those in favor recognized these were positive steps to protect our coldwater fish in the north zone. There was also support for some of the permit conditions which would require inspectors to ensure that aquatic invasive species (AIS) were not being transported. For those in opposition there was sentiment in terms of lost local opportunities to participate in competitive bass fishing in the north zone. There were also questions raised the way we had characterized the prohibition of bass tournaments in the north zone. We referenced the counties that were affected, and we have a number of waters that straddle the north/south zone. We also had river reaches that also straddled the north zone. There were a number of waters in the south zone we managed under south zone general law with portions of the area in the north zone. Comments also discussed charity work the organized bass tournaments provided, approximately 5% of the bass tournament permits occurred in the north zone. For some of the clubs it represented a significant percentage of the waters they actively fished. During the public hearing there seemed to be confusion over the intent of the prohibitions on the bass fishing tournaments. Their focus was our intent was to reduce bass populations, and it didn't have anything do with reducing bass populations. It was trying to create broader messaging regarding risk associated with promoting and conserving bass where they posed a threat to managing cold water fisheries and to not support activities that may create incentives for people to establish new bass populations.

There were 14 proposed changes to the special regulations to bass waters in the north zone. We had public comment both for and against the proposals. Those in support recognized enhancing bass in a part of the state where the Department was managing bass as an invasive species was inconsistent. We also had public comment indicating a desire to increase harvest of bass in those waters where they currently could not, or harvest was limited. It was pretty clear those opposed to removing the special bass regulations expressed frustration with the treatment of bass as an invasive in the north zone. That was clearly stated in our statewide fisheries strategic plan that bass were to be managed as invasive in the north zone because of the threat they posed to our native coldwater fisheries.

Mr. Brautigam stated the last item he would highlight related to East Grand Lake. That was one of the waters that straddled the north/south zone and we had proposed to manage that under the south zone. We retained the 5 fish brook trout bag limit that was currently in place, so that there wouldnt be any changes in terms of use opportunity there. In moving that lake to the south zone, the public would not be able to use ice fishing shacks after March 31st and that was something we did not anticipate, and public comment was received suggesting that East Grand often held ice until the end of April and the conditions were such they didnt want to lose the opportunity to use permanent ice shacks through the month of April.

Based on the public input and conversations with staff, there were five areas identified we were looking to make revisions to in the packet. These still were being reviewed by the Attorney Generals office to make sure the changes we were proposing were consistent with the publics opportunity to review the proposed change. Mr. Brautigam had mentioned earlier there were a number of waters that were managed in the south zone that had portions that technically were located in the north zone. We were proposing language to clarify the waters where bass tournaments would be prohibited were waters that we managed under north zone general law. It was a minor technical change but would help clarify the waters being managed were those covered under north zone general law. We were also looking to exempt a few select waters where we had a more recent consistent history of permitted bass tournaments that were more popular. Those would be excluded from the proposed prohibition of bass tournaments in the north zone. Another amendment being considered, when we issued a bass tournament permit (most occurred in the south zone where we were actively managing bass) they were expected to keep the bass alive following the requirements to ensure bass were conserved through the event. Those were not concerns we had for bass in the north zone. We were proposing to add language where club events would not be prohibited from killing bass on waters that were convened in the north zone.

Mr. Brautigam stated another proposed change in the bass tournament rules was related to the launching and retrieving of boats. After the event, there was typically a weigh-in, etc. There were land based ceremonial aspects to the bass tournaments that occurred after the fact. We wanted to make sure when those activities were occurring, they were not interfering with the normal operation of launching and retrieving at the boat ramp. We wanted to clarify that normal launching and retrieving wouldnt be affected by any of the activities associated with managing the bass fishing event.

Finally, we were exploring retention of a B season code which was currently in place at East Grand Lake. The B season code allowed people to ice fish until April 30th which is what we had in place on waters with ice fishing in the north zone. By having that end date of April 30th in conjunction with how our ice fishing/ice shack law was written it would allow people to continue to use ice shacks until the end of April.

Council Member Comments and Questions

Mr. Pineau asked about the ceremony after a bass tournament blocking the launch. What would be the penalty and who would be penalized?

Mr. Brautigam stated the purpose of moving this to the permit condition was to give more ability for enforcement. Warden Service would have a role in enforcing the rules.

Commissioner Camuso stated the most likely outcome would be that we would not permit the event the next year. If they were to violate the conditions of the permit and people were complaining they were violating the rule, we would have grounds to not authorize the event the following year.

Mr. Duchesne stated when he read the public comments, it seemed like we were not getting to the real point. We needed to back up to understand why we were doing this. We had to do everything we could to protect our coldwater fisheries. We did this through regulation. Warmwater fisheries contended to compete with that. In southern Maine where there were all kinds of bass that was a fishing resource, but in the northern zone for the most part we did not want warmwater species to become prevalent and certainly not promoted. When you had a charismatic fish there was going to be some pressure to move that around. We needed to drill down to what actions should the state be taking that were not promoting warmwater fisheries in the wrong place. There was some talk about the economic impact of banning some activities, but look at how much coldwater fisheries brought in. That was as much of an economic impact we had a threat to lose if we were not careful. He thought the policy that we didnt promote bass in the north zone was a good one and that we did consider it an invasive species no matter how it got there. He thought the Department was right and needed to drill down on the discussion of why we were doing what we were doing.

Mr. Gawtry referred to the proposed amendment to exempt waters with a recent consistent history. What would the working definition be of recent consistent history of permitted bass tournaments?

Mr. Brautigam stated we had looked at the last 6 years on waters that were supporting more regular events. We had 5 or 6 waters we would consider under that exemption.

Commissioner Camuso stated they were the waters that had multiple tournaments over multiple years.

Mr. Gawtry asked if there was a future consideration by a club looking to gain access to a body of water that was becoming prolific with bass fishing, was there language needed that wed have a proposal process for new waters in the north zone. If we reviewed them and looked at fish populations, and it would be feasible to host a tournament would there be a proposal process put in place.

Commissioner Camuso stated when the proposal was developed, we knew there would be comments from the bass tournament folks. A lot of the comments at the hearing were that they didnt know the proposal was coming, it was a surprise. The Departments strategic planning process was a multi-year process which included members of the bass tournament association. They participated and were aware of the proposal. The recommendation came out of a long public transparent process. After the public comment process and discussion with staff they agreed that if they could grandfather the 5 or 6 waters but would not be considering additional tournaments in the north zone based on the rationale outlined in the Departments strategic fisheries plan. There would not be a process for establishing additional waters. The north zone would be managed for coldwater species and not bass or invasive species. We would remain firm on that but recognize the small number of water bodies that have had historical consistent use, there was good economic support, there was community support for those events. They were all close to what we would consider the south zone, they were kind of in a buffer zone. We wanted to work with the tournament groups to talk about the invasive nature of bass so we could discourage people and have that educational material go out in their tournament information reminding people it was illegal to move fish, we didnt want these invasive species in any other waters in the state, etc.

Mrs. Rousseau stated she thought the proposed modifications would better satisfy people who made negative comments. She thought we were meeting in the middle. Invasive species were a concern, and part of our changing climate and we should be better preparing ourselves.

Mr. Ward stated this was a problem that needed to be addressed and he was glad we were bringing it forward. He had been on Moosehead Lake since he could remember, and the bass had changed everything. They had affected the baitfish and trout and salmon. Something needed to be done, people needed to be held accountable for introducing these invasives. He knew of people that caught bass and moved them around the lake.

Mrs. Peet asked if the Department did anything at the line where the bass were moving north such as harvesting events, etc.

Mr. Brautigam stated there was interest in convening those events, but the challenge was they did not result in any population level reduction. There was no simple solution. We had no size or bag limit in the north zone to encourage harvest where people were interested in doing that.

Mr. Grant stated regarding the parking issue, who had the authority to regulate. Was it local law enforcement or warden service or state police. We could hold the tournament accountable, but they had no authority other than to not hold the tournament again the next year.

Colonel Scott stated if it was in rule that you couldnt block the boat launch during the tournament, then that would be a violation of rule which was a crime. That could be regulated. If someones name was on the permit it would be their responsibility to ensure that didnt occur. He felt the rules around public boat launches through DACF also stated you couldnt permanently block the boat launch. Warden service or local law enforcement could enforce that. When it is specific to the permit and in rule it would be a violation to not clear out of the way.

Mrs. Peet asked about the proposed amendments.

Commissioner Camuso stated the proposed amendments were being reviewed by the Attorney Generals office and if the changes were not considered substantive at Step 3 we would bring the modified proposal forward for a vote.

Mr. Pineau asked what the input was from the bass fishing community and who were they when the rules were being developed.

Commissioner Camuso stated it was not possible to have every club participate on a steering committee. We worked with the Sportsmans Alliance of Maine to designate someone, and our expectation was that they were in communication with other members of their community. There was a representative of a national club, a larger statewide club and one representative of a local club that was out of the Bangor area as well as other members that were non-tournament.

Mr. Pineau stated once the rules were approved the executive summary should reflect who participated from the steering committee to show the Department was all inclusive and the ownness would be on them.

Commissioner Camuso stated throughout these types of processes there was not 100% consensus on everything. She was confident those on the committee had an opportunity to participate, the group in general would have come to consensus on the recommendation. It did not mean every person at the table was in agreement. They should not have been surprised by the rule proposal.

Mr. Brautigam stated for clarity, it wasnt that the plan would specifically say we were going to prohibit bass tournaments in the north zone. It was discussed, the goals were broad, we talked about managing bass as an invasive specie in the north zone and regulating the north zone to discourage illegal introductions, reconcile current inconsistencies with north zone bass management, etc. We couldnt possibly outline every strategy that would be developed to implement the objectives.

Mr. Neptune asked how we would measure if the rules were successful, or how the strategic plan was working. Typically, you would have short term and long-term goals.

Mr. Brautigam stated some of the challenges with this issue and not wanting to see a further spread of bass was there were multiple venues. The rules would have some cumulative benefit, but it was difficult to know to what extent. We were working on developing a tracking system so we could better monitor what we were seeing for changes in bass populations as well as other species around the state. We also needed to work on target messaging to different communities.

Mrs. Peet asked about the spread. Would we ever put stronger language in the lawbook that said for the north zone people were encouraged to lethally remove bass from the lake?

Mr. Brautigam stated we could encourage that, but it may not be meaningful in reducing the population. It was consistent with how we wanted to manage invasives.

Mr. Cowperthwaite stated he lived on Nickerson Lake in Linneus and in the 1980s there were no bass in the lake and this summer there were bass nesting near their shoreline and afterwards there were swarms of little bass. There was no way we could create a fishing regulation to keep bass that would do anything with the population because they were so prolific. It was unfortunate they were being introduced into other waters.

Mrs. Rousseau stated a good example was the Rapid River which straddled the north and south zones. It had a lot of bass and over the years IFW strategy was to find a flow that kind of kept the bass at bay. The Department was managing the bass for brook trout because how would you eradicate the bass when it was an open door to the Androscoggin River which was full of them. If we didnt open our eyes it would keep getting worse. The Rapid River was a perfect example of a prime coldwater fishery that was turning the tide because of the crisis were in on a global level.

There were no further questions or comments.

C. Step 1

There were no items under Step 1.

VI. Other Business

  1. Fish tagging project

Mr. Brautigam stated Liz Thorndike managed in the Magalloway and was trying to deal with some of the bass issues there. She was the regional fisheries supervisor for the Rangeley Lake area and was involved in a radio telemetry project on the Mooselook Lake drainage. She was there to talk about the project and demonstrate how the tags were implanted in the fish.

Liz Thorndike stated Mooselookmeguntic Lake had been a hotspot for concerns and suggestions the last several years. We proposed new ice fishing regulations, which passed, as the Rangeley Lakes region did not have a lot of ice fishing opportunities. It had been highly successful, and the community was enjoying the ice fishing opportunities. Mooselookmeguntic was part of the Rangeley Lakes chain. The lake was unique because it was the only self-sustaining fishery out of the whole chain. In part, that was because of the miles of spawning nursery habitat. She and Advisory Council member Shelby Rousseau had been hearing concerns about where fish were staging, were they vulnerable, would this have a negative impact on the fishery, etc. There were also requests to open fall fishing and create opportunity. We had an idea where the fish were going, but not which tributary was most important and the exact timing. The community, and Rangeley Lakes Heritage trust along with sportsmans associations stepped up financially to support the tagging project. The goal was to tag 125 fish as it was a big system. Local camp owners, guides, etc. participated in collecting the fish to be tagged. The transmitters were placed internally in the fish. The transmitters varied in size and needed to be within 2-3% of the fishs body weight so they would act normally once back in the water to truly understand when and where the fish were going. Some of the tags would last more than 900 days. If it was a small fish, those may last only 90 days.

Liz Thorndike stated in June they tagged 124 fish. They were tracking the fish weekly and monitored them moving into the next chain down, which was unique. The tag would stay with the fish, they were not retrieved. Each tag had a unique number which referred to a specific fish which we recorded the size and age. If someone caught one of the tagged fish we asked they report it. We could track the fish by boat, plane, sometimes by foot going up the tributaries or paddling.

Ms. Thorndike demonstrated implanting the tag into the fish.

Commissioner Camuso updated the Council on upcoming Department employee appreciation days; antlerless deer permits applications; legislation updates and effective date for new legislation, and new positions within the Department.

VII. Councilor Reports

Councilors gave reports.

VIII. Public Comments & Questions

Gary Corson asked where we were in the process for the fishing regulations and what would come next.

Mr. Brautigam stated we felt the Ch. 2 proposal was probably ready, Ch. 1 and 1-A modifications were being reviewed. The proposal for East Grand to allow an extension to use the ice fishing shacks was being reviewed by the AGs office.

Commissioner Camuso stated if the changes to the proposals were still in line with the original intent of the proposal, the AGs office would approve that and we would go to Step 3. If the AGs office felt the changes were substantive, we would have to readvertise the rule so the public would have the opportunity to review that proposal and comment on it.

Gary Corson stated he was looking at the management plan. The management plan was explicit in saying bass would be managed as an invasive species. If we were going to amend the rule we were actually going against the management plan. It seemed to him we had a hard time protecting the waters in the north zone. Was the amendment resource related, or social?

Commissioner Camuso stated the Department was trying to acknowledge and adhere to the principals outlined in the management plan. We were still going to consider bass an invasive species in the north, but given the community involvement and the desire to maintain that tournament opportunity in a limited number of waters that we would consider "grandfathering" those waters and put a hard line that we were not going to allow any additional tournaments in any other part of the north zone moving forward. There was some recognition of the history but be firm we were not going to manage other waters in this fashion.

Gary Corson stated they could have multiple tournaments on those waters. He did not know what we had to do to get the Department to take care of the wild and native fish.

Larry Bastian stated he was representing the Native Fish Coalition. He concurred with some of the concerns raised by Mr. Corson. They stood behind the comments they submitted earlier and they recognized and supported the Departments effort to implement the management plan. With respect to Beck Pond on the heritage waters, they had made comments on that.

There were no further public comments or questions.

IX. Agenda Items & Schedule Date for Next Meeting

The next meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, September 19th at 9:30am at IFW, Augusta.

X. Adjournment

A motion was made by Mr. Ward and that was seconded by Mr. Cowperthwaite to adjourn the meeting. The meeting was adjourned at 11:30 a.m.