August 3, 2008

Ellsworth’s Forgotten Fishery

Historically, Branch Lake in Ellsworth was, for years, a fine sport fishery.

With annual fish stockings and sensible fisheries management, lake trout, salmon and brown trout fared well in the lake's cold, deep waters. Then a few years ago, Ellsworth's overzealous municipal leaders gummed up the works.

Concerned, purportedly about the quality of its town water supply (Branch Lake), Ellsworth refused to allow the state Department of Conservation to build a public boat ramp on the lake after the previous boat-launch ramp was sold to private owners. Ellsworth was even willing to take the state to court over the issue.

Without public access to the lake, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife could not legally conduct any further fish stockings. As a result, the game fish population at Branch has declined markedly. A once fine sport fishery has become the forgotten fishery.

That could be about to change. The Land for Maine's Future board has just voted to grant Ellsworth's request for $640,000 to purchase conservation easements to prevent development on nearly 1,200 acres on the southern end of Branch Lake. Prior to the approval of Ellsworth's grant request from LMF, a discussion took place between Ellsworth's municipal leaders and state officials. Since the money that Ellsworth sought was state-sourced, the state had some leverage. What resulted, according to Downeast fisheries biologist Greg Burr, was a memorandum of understanding between the town and the state. Although I have not seen the memorandum, it is in its essence what is called a quid pro quo exercise: you scratch our back and we'll scratch yours. Ellsworth gets its money from the state, and the state gets to build its public boat ramp. And the forgotten fishery can be placed back on the state's annual stocking list.

Nothing is ever simple, though. There are still some sticking points in the ongoing dialogue between city and state officials. Apparently, Ellsworth has finally agreed to go along with the state boat ramp, but is still demanding some added provisos with which the state is not comfortable. Maine's Deputy Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, Paul Jacques, who has been involved in the discussions with Ellsworth officials, told me that, "We are still working on the details and the language. We are not there yet ... but it does look promising."

Although state policy makers deserve credit for taking advantage of the opportunity provided by Ellsworth's request for state funding, it's too bad that the fine print could not have been hammered out before the city got its request approved by LMF.

If the deal falls through, it will be deja vu all over again. By statute, LMF funds, which are yours and my state tax dollars, are not supposed to go into any land acquisitions where traditional public access is denied. That was not the case when the Appalachian Mountain Club bought the Katahdin Iron Works tract, partly with LMF funding.

There are signs - as the memorandum of understanding would indicate - that Ellsworth's municipal leadership is either smartening up or, at least, beginning to feel the pressure. Sportsmen, boaters, and state fisheries managers have not been impressed with the unreasonable approach to this issue over the years. Throughout Maine and the rest of the country, recreational boating and public water supplies have not been mutually exclusive. You can have both.

Stay tuned.V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News- Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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