In deciding not to recommend a ban on soft plastic baits to the state legislature, Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) followed the science. Biologist Dana DeGraaf, who is the trout and landlocked salmon specialist, especially deserves recognition for his diligence in compiling data, researching composition of plastic and biodegradable baits, and donning SCUBA gear to get a first-hand look at discarded baits in Maine fisheries.
It remains to be seen, though, whether those in the legislature who pushed for the ban in 2013 will accept the recommendation and alternative actions suggested by IFW. As in the Pacific Northwest, prejudice is strong against bass, an introduced species in many Maine waters. Coldwater anglers argue that if the bass weren’t there, neither would the discarded plastics.
One study cited by those who want the ban involved hatchery brook trout in a laboratory, with 63 percent of the 38 fish eating plastics. But that shouldn’t be at all surprising since the baits were mixed in with pelletized food.
As with bass, only anecdotal evidence exists that wild trout and salmon eat the discards. For example, in nearby Vermont, biologist Shawn Good said that he has received reports of trout with baits in their stomachs, and he’s also seen some abnormally skinny bass.
“I’ve killed a number of them over the years just to open them up and try to see what’s wrong with them,” he said. “A lot of these fish had two or three soft plastics in their stomachs. So we know they can affect individual fish.”
But, as in Maine, no research supports the notion that entire fisheries are being harmed by the discards. “I don’t think banning them is necessarily the right move,” Good explained. “But it’s something we should keep an eye on and let anglers know about, so they can try to reduce the amount that ends up in lakes.”
Which is exactly what DeGraaf and IFW recommended to the Maine legislature. “It’s mostly a littering problem,” the biologist said.
Sad to say, of that there was ample evidence, both from visual checks at launch sites and from underwater observations.
“Many discarded SPLs were readily observed visually from the boat prior to the diver survey,” the report said. “Hundreds of additional discarded SPLs were observed at Tricky Pond but were uncounted outside the initial survey area due to time limitations.
“In addition, multiple piles of discarded SPLs were observed at the toe of the Tricky Pond public boat ramp. This was indicative of anglers purposely dumping used SPLs after fishing and prior to trailering their boat(s) out of the water.”
Some soft plastics unavoidably will be lost while fishing. But, as the IFW discovered, some anglers continue to improperly dispose of their used plastics. In doing so, they needlessly contribute to the litter problem and provide ammunition to those will continue to push for a ban, not only in Maine but in other states as well.
Consequently, IFW’s recommendation of a public education campaign is a good one and something that other states should initiate as well.
“The Department could establish a process for public education and outreach regarding the effects of discarded SPLs and the process by which anglers should discard or recycle used SPLs,” the agency said in the report now posted on its website.
It proposed signs and collections boxes for baits at ramps, as well as media advertisements and printed material in the fishing regulations book. And it recommended that anglers “participate in SPL recycling programs such as the B.A.S.S. ReBaits SPL recycling program. This could include providing collection bags with each purchase of a Maine fishing license and/or advertising the Re-Baits program in print on the Maine fishing license.” (This is my B.A.S.S. Times column about Eamon Bolten starting the ReBaits program in Florida.)
A final reason that IFW does not recommend a ban on soft plastic baits should be of special interest to bass anglers nationwide. It said that a viable biodegradable option doesn’t exist, despite advertising claims to the contrary. “After one week, one month, and eight months post-treatment, the biodegradable SPL showed no signs of degradation,” the report said, adding that no national or international standard exists for “ what constitutes ‘biodegradable plastic’ and SPLs specifically.”
(This column appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)