Brunswick fish kill may prompt call for new rules

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BRUNSWICK — Some town officials and residents are demanding the state Department of Marine Resources identify the fisherman who caused a stink by releasing thousands of dead pogies into Middle Bay.

“The stench is unbelievable,” Simpson’s Point resident Frank Strasburger said Monday night, describing how he could smell the decaying fish inside his house with the windows closed.

“It’s the worst (fish kill) I’ve seen in an open-bay area in my time,” Harbormaster Dan Devereaux said, noting he has patrolled Casco Bay for 24 years.

“I’m furious,” Devereaux said, adding he’s concerned about local businesses losing customers, as a bed and breakfast inn at Barnes Point has already reported.

The town initially responded to more than 50 complaints about the smell Sunday, with a call for volunteers to help remove rotting fish that had floated to the water’s surface along nearly 4 miles of marshy shoreline since June 6.

But at Monday night’s Town Council meeting, Devereaux and Strasburger said a professional job was warranted. They said the responsible fisherman – who likely has liability insurance – ought to be held accountable.

The incident occurred when a large fishing vessel caught its net on a ledge. After hours of trying to free it, the fisherman decided to cut the dead fish loose. He broke no laws when he dumped the fish, Devereaux said, because they were disposed of outside the intertidal zone.

But it wasn’t that far away from the intertidal zone, he said, noting that the odor of fish lingered on his hands after spending the several days pitch-forking nearly 30 bushels of fish carcasses.

The clean-up could cost as much as $2,000, Town Manager John Eldridge said Wednesday morning, reporting what representatives from Clean Harbors told Devereaux after surveying the low-tide flats Tuesday afternoon.

“Those are the guys that clean up oil spills,” Eldridge remarked. “We’ll see how far they get in six hours,” he said, adding he hopes the company can start as soon as possible.

For $300 per hour, crews will vacuum the dead fish from the areas of highest concentration, he said. Many of those areas, he added, are hard-to-get-to clam flats and mud flats.

Although Devereaux said the fisherman likely meant no harm in what is an isolated incident, his decision to dump the fish could prompt the town to push for better fishing practices and regulations near Brunswick’s bays – what he called “big-picture issues.”

That idea resonated with residents and councilors, who expressed their fury at the state’s inaction.

Councilor Jane Millett called the state “AWOL,” drawing a comparison to their lack of financial aid for similar public health incidents, such as the town’s growing infestation of brown tail moths.

“The state is not stepping up to the plate,” Strasburger admonished, and asked the council to apply pressure on the DMR to release the name of the fisherman responsible for the mess.

Devereaux said he knows the fisherman’s identity, but would not release it unless he receives authorization from the DMR.

“The justification has been there’s been no violation of law at this point,” DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said Tuesday. “This is an isolated incident. It’s one harvester that certainly isn’t reflective of the entire industry.”

The last time a fishy disaster of this magnitude plagued the Brunswick area was in the mid-1990s, when predatory bluefish chased pogie populations into the narrow New Meadows River. The crowding caused oxygen deprivation that killed millions of pogies and left a stench some councilors still recalled 20 years later on Monday.

That has never happened in the Middle Bay region, and Devereaux repeatedly emphasized the town’s bays are healthy and not suffering a depletion of oxygen.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Dead pogies are leaving a pungent odor along 4 miles of shoreline in Brunswick’s Middle Bay after a fisherman released his catch June 6 just outside the intertidal zone.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.
  • Chew H Bird

    Fishermen are limited in the amount of fish they can take. If too many are in a net they have to be dumped. That is how the regulations work. They cannot be frozen for when fish are in short supply. They cannot be given to another fisherman.

    While a net caught on ledge is one issue, and an unavoidable incident happened, the actual regulations intended to preserve fish stocks are having the opposite result.

  • Paul Whitcomb

    I guess the question begs to be asked: Why were these fish dead by the time they were released? Also, did this boat have sonar and navigational charts and a skipper with experience/knowledge of the bay? If so, then the “net caught on the reef” excuse is invalid. Why doesn’t the captain come forward and accept responsibility for this? The fact that he’s not stepping forward gives us a glimpse into his mind set and world view.

    • Chew H Bird

      They are dead because they are caught in a net that must be tightened to get them into the boat. Pogeys are caught as bait so “dead” isn’t a problem for the catch except in situations like this.

      If the number of fish in the net exceeds the legal limit for the day the fisherman has to dump them because that is the law. The well intended conservation laws backfire in this scenario because the people who crafted the law did not understand the physical dynamics of fishing. Ultimately, outside of the “reef” situation, our legislators are responsible for this problem, not the fishermen. There is a well done Youtube video detailing the issues involved, (although there is plenty of “colorful” language in it).