KENNEBEC RIVER – When Duncan Barnes and Capt. Dave Pecci each hooked into a small striper, neither much longer than a foot, it was as if on July 2 the fireworks went off over the Kennebec River two days early.
Moments before as they were motoring in after five hours of fishing without a fish, they saw a rise, then another, suddenly several, and finally some serious seabird action around this riverine commotion.
After calling it quits, Pecci, a Maine saltwater guide for 25 years, turned the boat around. And each of the fishermen cast, hooked a bass and landed it at the same time.
“My personal record is 52 pounds. But those two small fish mean just as much. It’s nice to see the little ones. It means there is (recruitment of new fish) into the population,” said Barnes, the secretary of the Coastal Conservation Association in Maine and the champion behind its new striped bass study.
This month a joint study between CCA-Maine and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland was launched. The Snap-a-Striper program asks sport fishermen to photograph stripers caught in the Gulf of Maine, or to save the heads of the fish they harvest for research.
Using the two samples, scientists at the institute can tell the origin of the fish and learn more about Maine’s striper population.
“It will tell us what percentage of the population spawn here. It’s a fish that is so important to the state of Maine. We want to know more about it,” Barnes said proudly.
Specifically, Snap-a-Striper asks fishermen to fill out a 3-by-5-inch data card that can be downloaded from the CCA website. The anglers simply write their name, the date and the general location where the fish was caught, and photograph the card next to the fish to provide an accurate measurement of the fish’s length.
The photo then is sent to the institute.
The institute also requests fishermen who choose to keep a legal-sized fish to cut off and freeze the head in a plastic bag and drop it at one of three tackle shops in southern Maine or at the institute on the Portland waterfront.
A striper of any size can be photographed and anglers can email photos of as many catches as they wish.
John Annala, chief scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said all the data will be used to determine if those fish spawned in the Kennebec River.
“Basically there is a technique using the measurement between various points of the fish’s body to determine the area of origin. And also by extracting the otoliths (fish ear bones), a chemical technique can tell where the fish spawned and where it is living during its life. There is a chemical signature that tells that,” Annala said.
The study is the first of its kind in Maine.
Striped bass the past five years have eluded many sport fishermen in Maine as the species has become less prolific in the Gulf of Maine.
After the striped bass population crashed in the 1980s due to overfishing, regulations helped boost numbers across the species range, from Chesapeake Bay to the St. Lawrence River, where they migrate to in the spring, Annala said.
However, the numbers in Maine have not been as robust as they once were. Because Maine is at the northern edge of the species’ range, any down-tick in numbers will be felt here, Annala said.
Pecci knows this as well as anyone.
As he fished the Kennebec and around Popham Beach last Tuesday he hit a few spots normally busy with fish, and came up empty.
“Back in the ’90s the Kennebec was a destination fishery. But today the people I guide, 75 to 80 percent, are tourists looking for something else to do, who are not fishermen but who want to fish rather than play goofy golf,” Pecci said.
The joint study between CCA and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute this summer will help bring greater understanding to the stripers in the river, and maybe eventually help with management there, Annala said.
“There is a gap in the research on striped bass along the Maine coast,” Annala said. “So we thought this was a good opportunity to find out some information about a species that we know very little about. And we knew the Coastal Conservation Association was an active group.”
All the information gathered from the institute will be given to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
“We know the Maine spawning stock was overfished back in the 1980s,” Annala said. “Now the population is very healthy all along its range.
“But it’s one stock all mixed together. Whether the fish in the Kennebec River return to their home streams to spawn (or remain) is unchartered territory,” Annala said.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted 791-6452 or at: