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Posted on Feb 6, 2013 in
Help Preserve Soft-Bait Heritage in Maine
by Mike Mazur
Bass1
Mike Mazur
In addition to saltwater applications, soft-pastic baits are an integral part of freshwater fishing - this largemouth bass, caught and safely released by the author, was fooled by such a bait.

There’s a new battle brewing between anglers, tackle makers and government regulators over one of fishing’s most popular types of artificial lures – the soft-plastic bait.

At issue is L.D. 42, a piece of Maine legislation drafted by Republican state representative Paul Davis that seeks to prohibit artificial lures made from “rubber” used in state waters. Why? It seems that lake trout in some Maine lakes have been found with discarded soft plastics in their digestive systems.

Testimony was heard yesterday during a public meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and despite a clear and vocal majority in opposition to the bill (mostly local fishing guides and largemouth bass anglers), it advanced to a work session, the next step towards a committee vote, scheduled for Feb. 19.

It’s unclear whether the bill would apply to saltwater fisheries. Its language is very broad, but it seems unlikely, at least at this point, since it was introduced and applies to the jurisdiction of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

But make no mistake: Despite the misinformed term “rubber” (soft baits are generally made of plastics), this is a play at banning what are arguably the most popular type of lures used in both fresh- and saltwater environments. And it’s somewhat reminiscent of the ongoing battle over lead weights, which also cropped up in New England in the late-1990s.

Today, six Northeast states have banned lead tackle -- starting with New Hampshire and spreading from there -- and there is an ongoing push from environmental groups for an outright federal ban by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the case of lead, several water birds had been found to have ingested discarded lead weights and died, providing the catalyst for the legislation – similar to what could conceivably happen with the lake trout issue in Maine (though it is unclear whether actual mortality occurred with these fish).

Maine banned lead fishing products in 2001, and fishermen yesterday testified that alternatives since that time are two and three times more costly. Their fear, if this new bill is passed, is that the same could happen for soft plastics, making fishing all the more cost prohibitive and less enjoyable and productive.

But that’s only part of the problem. Anglers in Maine inject more than $614 million to the state each year, according to the American Sportfishing Association, and recreational fishing accounts for $42.8 million in state and local tax revenue.

So the question is: Is attacking a class of products so fundamental to fishing in this state (and the nation, for that matter) worth the economic damage that would ensue?

The most troubling development of the meetings occurred when government officials openly scolded many of those anglers in opposition – they apparently were upset by the thousands of “robo-emails” sent to their offices in the days prior, organized by allied groups of anglers.

One angler replied toward the end of the hearing, however, that instead of being upset with the flood of calls, officials should instead recognize that this is a serious issue with significant potential economic ramifications that could impact thousands of concerned citizens.

I couldn’t agree more.

The most encouraging development of the meetings were the discussions of “biodegradable” soft baits as potential long-term replacements to plastics. But, as ASA noted in a press release, the bill, as worded, would ban even those baits.

Many manufacturers have gotten away from soft-plastic products containing phthalates, which have been known to be detrimental when ingested, and anglers speaking out in opposition to the bill urged further scientific studies involving the impacts of soft baits on wild fish, as well as angler outreach and education regarding the proper disposal of soft baits.

This seems the most prudent action to what appears to be a badly misguided and overreaching piece of legislation

And despite the hassle it may cause officials and legislators, I heartily encourage all anglers (both fresh and saltwater) to voice their opinions on this important topic -- you have only until Feb. 19.