DFO scales back anti-bass efforts

By James Foster

Times & Transcript Staff

According to the plan, invasive smallmouth bass should be gone by now from Miramichi Lake.

But after an intensive three-year effort to get rid of the bass which pose a threat to Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi River system, some bass remain, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is scaling back its efforts to get rid of them once and for all.

The president of the Miramichi Salmon Association says that’s good and bad news.

“At least they are still there,” Hambrook says of the team, who are struggling to kill every last bass in the lake, which is part of the headwaters of the Miramichi River.

Originally, the plan was to get rid of the bass by the fall of 2012. Some feared the expiration of the project’s timeline would mean the end of the project. However, the workers will be back on the water this year, DFO confirms, just not as often as in the previous three years.

The move to a lesser effort by the DFO to get rid of the bass does have some logic. During the three-year battle, the DFO and its partner organizations learned that their efforts were not so productive during certain times of the year, and highly productive at other times.

Department spokesman Steve Hachey says that’s why most of this year’s bass-catching efforts will take place during those times when the best results can be anticipated.

“The three-year program has provided valuable information on which periods, methods and areas of the lake are the most effective for the removal of smallmouth bass,” Hachey says.

“Dedicated control and eradication sessions for smallmouth bass are also being conducted using mostly vessel-based electrofishing techniques, and during periods that have been proven the most effective.”

For 2013, the containment barrier at the outflow of the lake is being maintained for the entire ice-free season. The barrier is designed to keep any bass inside the lake, to prevent them from spreading into the river system.

Studies have shown the bass pose a high risk to the lake ecosystem and a moderate risk to the river system, one of the best salmon-producing rivers on the planet.

Alarm bells went off when it was found in 2008 that the lake hosted a spawning population of smallmouth bass, almost certainly transplanted there illegally by human hands.

Smallmouth bass are voracious eaters, vicious protectors of their territory and they compete with other species for food and space, so for the past three years the DFO, the province and Miramichi river groups have been striving to eliminate every last smallmouth bass from the lake — all 223 hectares of it, a significant undertaking.

Crews are using nets and electrofishing to eradicate the bass, including a boat that can electrofish a large area of water in a shorter time when compared with electrofishing with backpacks. Electrofishing stuns the fish so the bass can be removed without harming other species of fish.

Several groups have argued that samples of native fish in the lake should have been secured and then the lake poisoned to get rid of the bass, then restocked with those native fish, but the high cost of using chemicals, doubts about the poison’s efficacy on such a large lake and trouble obtaining the proper permits compelled the DFO to adopt the existing three-year plan that has now gone into overtime.

“Will we eradicate the bass this way?” Hambrook asks.

“I don’t know.”

If this process eventually works, then all will be well, the salmon advocate says. But he’s not sure if anyone can ever be certain that every last bass has been removed.

Hambrook is looking for evidence that the current plan is the ultimate answer.

“There has to be an end plan, and I’m not sure this is it.”

No one disputes that the exercise has significantly slashed the number of bass in the lake, but it is not lost on everyone involved in the effort that the thousands of bass removed from the lake so far came from someone illegally transplanting potentially just a single fish.

As soon as recreational fishermen reported the presence of bass in the lake, DFO and provincial officials investigated and found three adult bass and eight babies.

The next year 64 bass were removed. In 2010 as the big eradication project took off, 2,532 baby bass, 21 juveniles and 31 adults were captured. In 2011, the catch shrank to 483 young fish, 10 juveniles and 30 adults. Last year the number of captured fish dipped markedly, with 35 babies, seven juveniles and three adults.

Hambrook, whose team takes care of the fence that keeps the bass from leaving the lake, acknowledges the progress, but laments how long the eradication is taking because as long as the bass are in the lake, there is a danger one could escape into the river and one bass is all it takes to colonize the river system.

“Are we going to have to keep a fence in there forever?” he wonders.

The current progress is not only slow but expensive, he notes, and it is not likely that the project will continue to receive funding forever.