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2011 Fishing Regulation Changes

We used to have a trophy fishery in the Flathead River. Bull trout up to around 25 pounds traveled the Flathead and it’s tributaries and were prized by local anglers. Those fish are gone, thanks to a pack of voracious predators. Nonnative lake trout have become the predominant predators in Flathead Lake, destroying a thriving river fishery of native westslope cutthroat and bull trout. Studies have found that the primary reason for declines in native fish has been predation by voracious lake trout.

Daily Inter Lake, June 22, 1960

In 1999, fisheries managers thought that we could reduce the population of lake trout through the use of aggressive recreational angling. For ten years we tried that approach and it has been a dismal failure. Last year, a report by the National Park Service found that bull trout are “at high risk of extinction” in several lakes on the west side of Glacier National Park. “The decline is directly attributed to the invasion and establishment of introduced lake trout, which consistently displace bull trout.” The aggressive invaders have expanded their range and now threaten all populations of native fish in the watershed. For ten years we tried every form of recreational angling. The Mack Days angling contests were tried and later expanded to twice a year. Catch limits have been raised. It hasn’t worked. The lake trout threat continues to expand outward from the lake. Fish, Wildlife and Parks, along with co-managers, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are currently exploring new methods to be used in conjunction with angling pressure to reduce the exploding lake trout population.

As part of the ten-year management plan begun in 2000, FWP instituted a slot limit on lake trout in Flathead Lake. Anglers are not allowed to keep any lake trout between 30 and 36 inches. Only a single fish over 36 inches may be creeled. This regulation was meant to protect the trophy fishery for lake trout as the overall population was reduced. Angling pressure did nothing to reduce the lake trout population and large, hungry lake trout continue to decimate our native fish stocks. The fish protected by the slot limit are the most aggressive predators on adult and subadult native trout. A 2006 study found that there is little predation on adult and subadult native fish by lake trout less than about 25 inches in length. The report estimated that lake trout consume roughly 177,000 westslope cutthroat trout in Flathead Lake annually and more than 30,000 native bull trout. Data from the report suggest that lake trout greater than 30 inches (those protected by the slot limit) consume 32% of cutthroats or 57,000 fish annually and thousands of the native bull trout. The slot limit has served only to increase the overall consumption of our dwindling native fish populations.

This month, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released their list of proposed fishing regulation changes for the 2011 fishing season. Among the changes, they propose raising the daily limit on lake trout in Flathead Lake from 50 to 100 fish. While this is certainly a worthwhile change, it will do little to protect cutthroat and bull trout. The past ten years have proved that angling pressure alone does not come close to being a strategy for reducing lake trout numbers. Only the occasional angler would ever see a 100-fish day on the lake and at best the regulation could result in a couple thousand more dead lake trout. Not nearly enough to make a difference to a population approaching a half million fish. No mention is made of changing or eliminating the slot limit.

FWP needs to revisit the slot limit regulation. There is no way at this point that we can justify protecting the largest and most aggressive of the very fish that we are trying to reduce. Please read over the list of proposed regulation changes and send your comments to FWP before the Sept. 6 deadline. Tell them that if we are serious about saving our native fish, it is time to get serious about the methods we use to reduce lake trout numbers and we must stop trying to both protect and remove lake trout at the same time.

Send comments to Don Skaar, Fish Management Section Supervisor, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, P.O. Box 200701; Helena, MT 59601, or email your comments to fwpfsh@mt.gov. Let’s get serious about saving Montana’s native fish populations.

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