It’s time to stop playing cat and mouse with the categorization of Green Lake’s native Arctic char
Green Lake in Hancock County is one of 12 remaining native arctic char waters in the contiguous United States, all of which are in Maine. It is also one of Maine’s four native landlocked salmon waters and the only water in the country where these two rare species occur naturally.
Green Lake is also native rainbow smelt water, one of only two waters where Arctic char and smelt have co-evolved. It empties into Graham Lake, an artificial impoundment on the Union River, which is historic water for Atlantic salmon.
To say that Green Lake is unique in terms of the assemblage of native fish species would be accurate. To say it has the most unique species assemblage in Maine, and perhaps the Northeast, wouldn’t be unreasonable.
The idea that three extremely rare cold-water fish have co-evolved in the watershed makes Green Lake a natural resource of national, regional, and national significance.
Over a period of only a few years, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife called Green Lake Arctic char native, native, native again, not “firmly established” and “probably endemic”.
This volte-face came to a head earlier this year when DIF&W submitted a written position as part of a Graham Lake dam permit renewal application that again listed Arctic char as the original. uncertain.
“The FLA (Final License Application) should be clarified that it has never been firmly established that the Arctic Char originated in Green Lake as an Artic [sic] Arctic char was seeded in the late 1800s; however, Green Lake is now home to a wild arctic population [sic] charr,” said Greg Burr, regional fisheries biologist at DIF&W.
The Maine chapter of the Native Fish Coalition officially refuted Burr’s claim using previous correspondence to make their case. This was the second time NFC had to intervene on behalf of the rare Green Lake Arctic char, and for the same reason.
Once publicly challenged, the official position was that the biologist was acting on old data and that the population was “probably” indigenous.
“Yes, the department recognizes that the (Arctic) Arctic char in Green Lake are likely endemic,” said Francis Brautigam, director of fisheries and hatcheries for DIF&W.
Although long classified as a native population, recent attempts by DIF&W to question the origin of Green Lake’s Arctic char are based on subjective and inconclusive data. Although the lake and its outlet appear to have been stocked with Arctic char fry from Floods Pond in the late 1800s, that alone is not enough to say that Arctic char were introduced.
The stocking of wild native fish was not uncommon then, nor unheard of today. This is the case at Moosehead Lake (non-native salmon rather than native brook trout and lake trout), Pierce Pond (non-native salmon rather than native brook trout), and other waters.
In fact, DIF&W is stocking non-native lake trout rather than native landlocked salmon and Arctic char in Green Lake as we speak.
It is also important to note that Arctic char fry have a very low survival rate, a position that DIF&W has defended in the past. Even if Arctic char were stocked, they are more likely to have failed to capture than to naturalize.
In fifteen attempts to introduce Arctic char to Maine, only one or two waters have been successful. New Hampshire failed in 15 of 15 attempts.
Data collected by Canadian biologist Dr. Louis Bernatchez and then analyzed with other available data by University of Maine biologist Dr. Michael Kinnison concluded that Green Lake Arctic char are more closely related to those found in Wassataquoik and Gardner lakes than Floods Pond, dismissing the idea that they came from the latter.
Data presented to DIF&W by Kinnison led the department to reverse its stance and redesignate the population as native in 2019, after being declared non-native in 2018.
“We now believe the population of Arctic char in Green Lake is native and not from stocking,” Brautigam said in 2019.
Nothing has changed from 2019 to today, yet Burr recently hinted there were still doubts.
This distinction, native versus introduced, is of crucial importance. If it is allowed to be considered non-native, there is no pressure on DIF&W to do the right thing when it comes to Green Lake Arctic Char. At a minimum, this means suspending the stocking of non-native lake trout that puts these rare fish at risk.
Lake trout is the same species responsible for the disappearance of Arctic char in New Hampshire and Vermont. They are also contributing to the likely loss of Arctic char in Bald Mountain Pond in Maine – a story for another day.
It’s time to stop playing cat and mouse with this large population of rare native wild fish. Attempting to downplay the ecological value of these fish by questioning their origin without solid scientific backing is a disservice to these rare fish, this unique body of water, and the people of Maine.