August 31, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: Implementing suggestions could expand Maine's fishing economy

George Smith

Did you fish this summer? Probably not. Most Mainers do not fish. And that's a pity.

Commissioner Chandler Woodcock of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is blessed with a great opportunity to expand Maine's fishing economy and get more of us excited about the wonderful recreational fishing heritage we share.

Gov. Paul LePage's challenge to make state agencies more efficient and effective gives Woodcock an unusual opportunity to remake his agency to better serve both his customers and Maine's outdoor economy.

And he doesn't have to reinvent this wheel. In fact, he's about to receive a study ordered up by the Legislature that looks at fishing management and marketing programs in states that are destinations for the nation's anglers. Maine has lost its competitive advantages to these other states, but we can get it back.

Fifteen years ago, the Fishing Initiative Committee of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine created a fishing initiative with three core concepts: protect and enhance wild fisheries, expand hatchery-grown fish to meet demand, and create more quality fishing experiences.

Woodcock would do well to focus on these three concepts.

Three years ago, SAM's Fishing Initiative Committee, with the help of a group of avid anglers who attended a one-day conference/workshop, expanded its initiative with three very ambitious goals and a set of principles to achieve those goals.

The goals are to create great fishing statewide, double fishing license sales, and triple the economic contribution of recreational fishing

The principles that are necessary to the achievement of these goals are: recognize the quality of fishing experiences in Maine and protect that quality, make it easy to fish, maximize fishing opportunity, manage big fish, maximize the economic value of fish and fishing, make native and wild fisheries the highest priority for sustainable management, secure appropriate access to all Maine lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, and establish accountability for fisheries managers, decisions and policies.

Here's the really good news. LePage, in his candidate survey for SAM, endorsed the goals and principles of this initiative. Let's hope he insists that Woodcock frame his fisheries recommendations and plan to achieve the goals and principles of this initiative.

I have a few specific recommendations.

Consider this statement: "Our code of fish and game laws is complicated, unfair, and in some places contradictory. It really makes lawbreakers unknowingly owing to its uncertain phrasing and its complex rulings. What Maine needs is a simple code, easily understood and practically universal in its scope. The law should treat all parts of the state with equality and must do away with sectional selfishness and spite legislation."

Robert Maxy, a noted state expert on fish and game issues, wrote this in 1928.

I can't imagine what Maxy would have to say about today's 100-page fishing rulebook. It's time to reject the notion that every body of water needs its own specific rules and adopt rules that can be applied uniformly throughout the state.

A rule that establishes a maximum size limit would not only cut the rule book in half, it also would keep big fish in the water, achieving two of our goals.

It must be said that Woodcock is laboring under a severely limited budget. But there is some good news, at least on the hatchery front.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, successfully championed legislation that establishes a tax credit for private investments in fish hatcheries. And Poland Spring Bottling Co. owns the old Dead River hatchery and wants to turn it over to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This is a marriage made in fishing heaven, and ought to be a high priority for Woodcock.

Finally, there's one thing Woodcock can do -- easily -- that will please many of his current customers and attract new ones. Let us fish open water year-round statewide. Maine is well behind other states in establishing this opportunity, although we have opened a lot of waters to fall and year-round fishing in recent years.

In our effort to find ways to replace the state's lost deer hunters -- those who no longer come to Maine to hunt whitetails because we've lost our deer herd in the north woods -- we ought to focus on fishing.

Particularly in western Maine, where we lose many customers to New Hampshire where they can hunt and fish all weekend in the fall, we ought to authorize fall fishing -- and create a great combination for upland bird hunters. Fish in the early morning, hunt the rest of the day.

Perhaps some of these changes will even convince you to try fishing.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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