Baitfish regulation defended
Chris Racey, chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, recently updated a proposal to limit the transportation of wildcaught baitfish.
The revised proposal mimics the wording of an existing baitfish restriction on Lake Norfork that has been in effect since 2009. It reads, “It is unlawful to use live wild- caught baitfish unless such bait was caught within the same waterbody being fished or from a tributary entering upstream of the waterbody. No baitfish may be moved upstream past a dam or barrier that prohibits the normal passage of fish.”
It also defines certain waters where it will be prohibited to take baitfish for commercial purposes, except for threadfin and gizzard shad.
An exception is for baitfish purchased from a licensed dealer selling only certified, farm-raised baitfish.
Racey prefaced his remarks to the commission by introducing a public opinion survey that the fisheries division conducted regarding the proposal. Only 23 percent of the respondents approved of the regulation, and 77 percent opposed it.
Racey said it was daunting to advocate a proposal in the face of such overwhelming opposition. He defended the regulation as being necessary to help prevent invasive aquatic species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels from colonizing more waterways in the state. Sometimes, Racey said, doing the right thing is not popular.
Don Andreasen of Rogers also addressed the commission. Andreasen has been a striped bass fishing guide on Beaver Lake for 36 years, and he said his livelihood depends on catching and transporting live gizzard shad from the Arkansas River. That is necessary, Andreasen said, because Beaver Lake does not have big concentrations of shad that can be caught with throw nets.
Andreasen said he catches about 500 gizzard shad three times a week from below Ozark Lock & Dam to supply three to six guide boats with enough bait for his clients.
“I catch about 45,000 shad a year in the Arkansas River, and I have never seen a jumping carp or a zebra mussel,” said Andreasen, adding that 5-inch gizzard shad are not available from certified licensed bait dealers.
In the summer, stripers prefer 5-inch gizzard shad over anything else, he said.
Andreasen said he has about $250,000 invested in equipment to catch and hold bait. If the AGFC approves this proposal, he said it will drive him out of business.
AGFC commissioners are always sensitive to claims they will harm somebody economically. Many of them own businesses that are also vulnerable to government regulations, and the commission appeared ready to cave on the baitfish regulation.
Racey said the entire striper fishing community does not oppose the regulation, and that no striper guides went out of business at Lake Norfork because of the 2009 regulation.
Commissioner Ford Overton of Little Rock acknowledged that striper guides have legitimate concerns, but he said the commission’s mandate is to protect the state’s natural resources. He asked the commission to consider the economic impact on lakes Hamilton, Ouachita and Beaver if Asian carp start whacking boaters and personal watercraft operators in the heads.
Commissioner Ken Reeves of Harrison floated three separate motions. The first was to adopt the wording of the regulation but to delay enacting it until Jan. 1, 2019. That got two “yes” votes.
The second motion was to delay implementation until July 1. That got three “yes” votes.
The third motion was to accept the regulation as proposed, to be implemented on Jan. 1. That one passed with four “yes” votes. After a 30day comment period, the commission will vote on it Aug. 17.
Lost in the baitfish debate was another presentation given earlier in the meeting by Seth Rowland of Hot Springs and Howard Robinson of Mansfield to allow the use of big-bore air rifles for deer hunting.
Before 2014, the Arkansas Wildlife Code did not specifically allow nor prohibit big-bore air rifles for deer hunting. A few people did it with the tacit approval of the wildlife officers in their counties. It was a “No harm, no foul” situation.
In 2014, Rowland asked the commission to allow them specifically so there would be no questions. Instead, the commission banned them for deer hunting at the recommendation of Todd Callaway, the AGFC’s former chief of enforcement.
Rowland got a more encouraging reception this time.