We are poor stewards of Earth and our environment, and the sad situation in the Belgrade Lakes brings this problem close to home. Both water quality and fisheries have declined there during the last several decades.
Peter McGuire’s July 27 front-page news story in this newspaper about the diminished water quality in the Belgrade Lakes, titled “Loving their lakes to death,” was a good wake-up call. But will we wake up?
“A recent analysis of 40 years of water tests indicates that water quality on the lakes is on a downward trend, and if not reversed, could lead to serious water quality issues and widespread algae blooms in as few as 10 years,” McGuire reported.
One major problem is phosphorus runoff, and the Belgrade Lakes Regional Conservation Alliance deserves great credit for raising the alarm and working to reduce phosphorus runoff during the past decade. Unfortunately, too few people are hearing that alarm, or, if they do hear it, they are ignoring it.
A new Water Quality Initiative led by the conservation alliance and the Maine Lakes Resource Center, also located in Belgrade Lakes, hopes to engage people in a solution to this problem. Good for them.
Here’s one essential fact, as reported by McGuire: Phosphorus is carried into lakes mostly through polluted snowmelt and storm water runoff exacerbated by shoreline development like lawns and roads, as well as leaking septic systems, logging and agriculture. Yes, if you live on the lake, you need to rip up your lawn. I remember when hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to move the boat launch on Great Pond to limit phosphorus runoff. I noted at the time that there were dozens of boat launches on private lots all around the pond. Most are still there today, funneling phosphorous right into the lake.
Which brings us to the shameful and distressing story of the fisheries in the Belgrade Lakes. Long Pond, for example, was one of the top five landlocked salmon waters in the state at one time, and, boy, did I enjoy fishing for salmon there. Anglers from all over Maine and other states came to the Belgrades to catch salmon.
Then illegal and/or inadvertent stocking of nonnative and invasive species, from pike to landlocked alewives, ruined the salmon fishery and crowded out other cold water species such as brook trout. Today, smallmouth bass is the most sought-out fish in Long Pond, but we can catch bass almost everywhere in this state, surprising for a nonnative fish. Studies continue to show that our native brook trout are the most popular and desired fish in Maine. Salmon are also very popular fish.
Fisheries biologists from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have been documenting the demise of Long Pond’s salmon fishery. A recent report from biologists Wes Ashe, Jason Seiders and Scott Davis noted that Long Pond was “once nationally renowned as a ‘destination’ salmon fishery with fish up to 8 pounds.” From 1985 to 1999, biologists trap-netting the lake caught an average of 74 salmon a year. From 2000 to 2012, only five salmon a year were captured in the trap nets, all of them small.
Die-hard salmon anglers still try to catch those fish in Long Pond, but it now takes eight times longer to catch a salmon as it does a bass. And those salmon, according to biologist, “no longer survive in Long Pond.” Soon after they are stocked, they are caught or they die.
Because landlocked alewives have taken over the lake, the smelts that salmon depend on are nearly gone. In that report, the biologists reported that a “smelt extirpation is possible.” Perhaps a memorial service for smelts and salmon would be appropriate now.
Looking to the future, the biologists are hosting meetings with sporting camps — including John Rice at Castle Island Camps, who is very involved in this issue and who keeps me informed about it — anglers, residents and town officials, to consider what can be done.
The biologists may have come up with a solution, suggesting that we give up on salmon and start stocking rainbow trout, which will feed on the alewives. This seems reasonable to me, although I am deeply saddened by the end of what was once a premier salmon fishery. Rainbows could be stocked in Long Pond by the fall of 2016, and I suppose I will fish for them soon after that.
But I will never forget those huge landlocked salmon that I caught here. And I suppose if this was the only lake where water quality and fisheries have declined, I could accept it. But this has happened all over Maine. I wonder — when and will we wake up and fix this problem?