January 15, 2007

Koi Fish Are Invasive, and a Threat, Biologists Insist ; The Public Misunderstood the Koi Seizure This Fall, They Say, Warning That Maine’s Lakes Are Fragile.


The state's seizure of pet koi from a Freeport restaurant owner has been widely ridiculed by the public as an example of heavy- handed bureaucracy.

But the issue is much broader than one man's fish tank.

For biologists, the seizure was a necessary, if unpopular, step to protect Maine's native fisheries from being taken over by invasive species. They have been fighting to keep non-native fish out of wild trout and salmon waters for 30 years.

The reaction to the koi episode, however, shows how much work remains to be done to educate the public about the threat.

John Boland, director of fisheries operations at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says invasive fish in Maine waters are the single biggest challenge faced by Maine biologists.

"This is happening not just around the country, but around the world," Boland said. "We have waters in southern Maine that were managed for (salmon) that are now managed for populations of pike and bass."

Last year Trout Unlimited, a private conservation group, released a study involving agencies from 17 states that dubbed Maine "the last true stronghold for brook trout in the eastern United States."

That stronghold has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected a challenge to the invasive species law in 1986 by a Massachusetts man who was fined for bringing live shiners, a bait fish, into Maine.

The battle against invasive fish is being fought partly because sportfishing brings $300 million into Maine each year, according to a 1996 study, and because preserving the state's reputation as a fishing destination is worth it.

"We have to protect our landlocked salmon and wild brook trout waters, and shame on us if we lose them. That rises way above everything else as a priority," said George Smith, director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine.

"When you start to see bass and splake in the Rapid River - the best wild brook trout water, absolutely - we could lose it all."

As the story of Cuong Ly, the Freeport restaurateur, suggests, the problem is driven at least partly by the public's lack of understanding of what "invasive fish" means and why they should care.

Carp and other invasive fish have the potential to destroy an entire ecosystem. Yet every year, dozens of waters are infested with new species of fish dumped by a public that does not see the threat, or fear it.

"There are some non-native species that can do enormous environmental damage. Carp is one," said Col. Tom Santaguida, head of the Maine Warden Service. "It can take out all the weeds in a lake and outcompete all the other fish. Then what you have is a turbid pond with carp in it."

That's why carp are illegal in Maine, even in a home fish tank.

But few people seem to know about the law or why it's on the books.

Keith Hall of Raymond reported himself to the warden service last summer after hearing about the Freeport case.

Hall said he had had koi in his home since he moved here from Florida 12 years ago. He said he tried to find out whether they were legal but found nothing on the subject on the Maine state government Web site. So he assumed he could keep the fish.

Now the fish are gone and Hall is annoyed the state did not do more to publicize the law.

"It would have saved me a lot of trouble," Hall said. "The detective I talked to rambled off a list of fish I can't have. Well, it's not on the Web site. How do you know?"


Others koi owners also said they were unaware.

The owners of the Capital Buffet restaurant in Augusta were ordered to get rid of the eight koi they kept in a tank five years ago. They complied without issue, but said they were just as confused as Hall.

Owner Katie Lee said customers liked the fish; however, she removed them after the warden service visited the restaurant and explained why the koi were a threat.

Smith, at the sportsman's alliance, said most fishermen know about the invasive species threat because of a tougher law put on the books three years ago.

The law increased the maximum fine from $1,000 to $10,000 for anyone who imports, possesses, or stocks invasive fish.

Rusty Harvey, vice president of the Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen's Association, said the law helped make more fishermen aware of the problem, but he questions whether there will be any successful prosecutions.

"It's going to be tough. They're trying to catch poachers who put invasive species in lakes and ponds. What the law really did is (just) make them nervous about doing that," Harvey said.

That is part of the problem of invasive fish: They constitute an unseen, invisible threat.

The state spends thousands of dollars each year to reclaim a fishery from invasive species, and the attempt is never completely successful, said Boland, the director of fisheries operations.

"Quite often, the public doesn't realize that by putting a fish into one lake, they can disrupt up and down the drainage. Eventually, it will impact many, many lakes and ponds," Boland said.

Today, the prized fisheries that have been lost to invasive fish are many.

Yet 12 years after Hall struggled to learn about Maine's invasive fish laws, the state's Web site still doesn't make it any easier. There are few pages devoted to the topic.

Smith, at the sportsman's alliance, tried to help a few years ago using a Maine Outdoor Heritage grant.

With more than $20,000, the organization printed brochures to help spread awareness of invasive fish species.

Smith said the brochure remains the only resource of its kind in Maine.

Some outside the department are calling for a dramatic approach, including Smith.

He suggests allowing non-native species in certain contained watersheds, and then creating iron-clad policies and protections on the wildest, most remote fisheries.


In fact, a bill in the Legislature this session directs the department to do just that.

"I think people are aware it's not a good thing. They continue to do it," Smith said. "They should draw the line at wild trout waters and ban the use of wild bait. They really need to prioritize this, spend most of their effort protecting the most special places, because they are losing the battle everywhere else."

For now, state officials remain focused on trying to educate the public, even though the state has no money to do that.

"If we had more money, we would advertise, do more with public service on television," said Peter Bourque, who heads the fisheries division at the fish and wildlife department. "I think people pay attention to those, if they're done well."

Santaguida, the warden service head, said the service may review how it handled the Freeport koi case. He said the entire fish and wildlife agency should drop the scientific lingo and call the fish what they are: dangerous, undesirable, unwanted.

He said the solution, like the problem, lies in public perception.

"What does the average person think of invasive species? Maybe, they skip over what they're reading when they see that," Santaguida said. "We're trying to think how the average person understands it."

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

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