The future looks bleak for Maine’s wild brook trout.

More and more, big, voracious predator fish such as pike and bass have been illegally introduced in forested, cold mountain streams that flow through idyllic trout habitat. And state agencies find it nearly impossible to stop it.

If the rate of those illegal introductions continues, the number of wild brook trout waters in Maine will decline, biologists say. And if nothing is done, Maine one day could lose its distinction as a trout-fishing destination.

“The wild trout waters are a huge concern. There is no doubt about it. When bass show up, brook trout don’t stick around for any length of time,” said Merry Gallagher, the head fisheries researcher with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “What we know about brookies is they do quite well living in all habitats, but you throw in a strong competitor, they tend to leave. An invasive throws them over the edge.”

Maine is king of wild brook trout waters in the continental United States. And brook trout are the No. 1 freshwater game fish sought by anglers who fish in Maine, according to the University of Maine School of Economics. But because some fishermen prefer fish species not native to Maine — such as black bass, crappie and northern pike — the state’s wild brook trout populations are in danger of being lost.

The invasive predator fish kill off the trout or the fish they feed on. Other trout migrate elsewhere through adjoining waterways to escape the bigger fish, leaving their survival to chance. In addition, new research shows non-native warm-water fish putrefy the clear trout habitat, Gallagher said.

Illegal stocking of non-native species can draw a $10,000 fine. But in the past 10 years, just seven fishermen have been charged and only four convicted in cases that resulted in fines of no more than $1,000, according to the Maine Warden Service.

At the same time, illegal stocking of invasive species has been confirmed in at least 64 state water bodies in the past six years, and has likely occurred in 33 others, although these are unconfirmed, Gallagher said.

The problem brought together outdoor leaders at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine headquarters last week. And the steady pace of non-native fish introductions has fish biologists wondering how many wild brook trout waters will remain in Maine in 30 years.

“We will become Connecticut. We will end up with a homogeneous landscape, so there will be all species everywhere. It’s one of the things that makes Maine unique, to have the only species in a pond be brook trout. Unfortunately, every week, there are reports of new introductions,” said Gordon “Nels” Kramer, the regional fisheries biologist in eastern Maine.

NATURAL RESOURCE AT RISK

There are 331 wild brook trout waters in Maine that have never been stocked, as well as an additional 267 waters with wild brook trout that have not been stocked in 25 years. This significant inventory of wild trout waters adds up to a natural resource unique in the United States. And all of it is at risk, state biologists universally agree.

“I would say if all the wild brook trout waters got bass in them, it would be a death knell for them. Could we get them back? Not to the extent that they are today,” said Greg Burr, the regional fisheries biologist in the Downeast region.

Brookies prefer cold, clean spring water, and their abundance here is a symbol of Maine’s pristine waterways. But while wild landlocked salmon, also native to Maine, can coexist, albeit in smaller numbers, alongside competition from bigger fish, wild brook trout cannot.

“Brook trout take it on the chin much harder than salmon,” Burr said.

Moreover, the beautifully spotted brook trout is the only native trout in the eastern United States, which means it is the only trout to live here prior to European settlement.

Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been documenting and cataloging introductions of non-native species into new waters since 2006. But the problem has existed for at least 50 years, since northern pike were illegally dumped into the Belgrade Lakes.

So far, the law against moving any live fish into a water body has not resulted in a landmark case that might discourage others. The state also has no strategy for stopping the spread of non-native fish, and some say the state’s efforts to educate the public are ineffective.

MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

At Thursday’s conference at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, several possible remedies were discussed, including a mandatory kill law on invasive fish; tougher penalties for offenders; lessons in middle schools; and a massive volunteer effort to educate the public. All participants agreed that more needs to be done.

National conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited also are concerned about the threat to Maine’s wild brook trout.

“The wild brook trout resource in Maine is as significant and intact a wild population as there is for brook trout in the lower 48 states. It’s remarkable when you look at how large an area of robust brook trout waters are in Maine. We’re very worried about it,” said Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited’s New England coordinator.

Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Director of Fisheries Mike Brown said the department’s public education program has helped.

“We find education to be the most effective. Unfortunately, that takes time, but it can be extremely effective. We used to see people not practicing catch-and-release; now that’s extremely popular. The same thing can happen with (education on) invasive fish,” Brown said.

But those at the Sportsman’s Alliance meeting disagreed. Executive Director David Trahan, who called the meeting, said the state’s public messages are not clear and fishermen don’t know what to do when they find a non-native fish, or that moving fish species that are now managed as fisheries still hurts wild trout populations.

“There is conflicting policy. The department needs to send a consistent message,” Trahan said.

Greg Ponte, with the Kennebec Valley Trout Unlimited chapter, said the average angler does not understand the crime, or how much damage it causes.

“The terminology is confusing. It’s confusing to regulate some fish in some waters, and demonize them in others. You can’t have it both ways and expect people to understand. The problem started in the ’50s and is getting worse. So obviously, it’s not working,” Ponte said.

In fact, the problem is spreading.

PROBLEM AT ‘EPIDEMIC LEVELS’

It was 20 years ago that Kramer’s staff in eastern Maine received the first report of largemouth bass in the Penobscot River. Today those reports come in just about every other week, Kramer said.

And while just 10 years ago the problem of illegally introduced non-native fish was confined largely to southern Maine, today the head fisheries biologist in that region says he’s got company.

“Since the glaciers retreated, our cold-water fisheries have had little competition from warm-water fish,” said Francis Brautigam, the regional biologist in Gray. “But the unique places are at risk now. The way it’s going, we’re going to end up with a situation where a lot of fishing opportunities around Maine are not that unique.”

Burr, the biologist in the Downeast region, said the 20-year-old problem of bass being introduced in waters there is now at “epidemic levels,” and a clear threat to the wild brook trout waters.

“When bass do colonize, the trout are the first ones to go,” agreed state fisheries biologist Frank Frost in Ashland.

The irony is that bass are now managed by state biologists as one of the state’s popular game fish because there is so much interest in the species. But Burr said bass remain a danger to brook trout, as the larger voracious game fish eats smaller brookies, and they effectively change the ecosystem the brook trout needs to thrive.

Once introduced, the problem can spread, as aggressive non-native species placed in a watershed migrate through it, colonizing other waters on their own.

In northern Maine, smallmouth bass were introduced into the Upper St. John River years ago but spread through the watershed. Today, muskellunge have joined the bass in the river and both species are moving toward Fish River Falls in northern Aroostook County, where they present a real danger to the Fish River drainage, which is home to a world of wild trout habitat.

“I’m afraid if nothing is done at Fish River Falls we’re looking at major losses for wild brook trout,” said Frost in Ashland. “If they got up, they’d impact at Soldiers Pond, Wallgrass and Eagle lakes and Square Lake. It’s frustrating for us in the field. It’s really discouraging. It is the single biggest overriding issue over everything else in my mind.”

‘FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE?’

Despite statewide concern, the threat non-native fish pose to Maine’s wild species appears to exist unchecked for now.

“It’s really hard to predict,” Gallagher said. “Most people don’t realize the fish they’re stocking are not native to Maine. We can with a lot of modeling, predict the rate that species can colonize. What we can’t do is venture a guess and predict the human component, figure out when people will choose to move fish.”

Leaders from Maine Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and the Sportsman’s Alliance agreed Thursday that somebody — or maybe everyone — needs to take action.

“Are we fighting a losing battle?” Trahan said.

Across the state in the seven regional fisheries offices, field biologists wonder.

“Regulations and stricter laws to protect those trout, those are meaningless after a breach,” said Frost in northern Maine. “Because with one breach, there is no going back.”

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph