B.A.S.S. convenes summit to discuss national conservation issues

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Mike Suchan
The Classic isn't just for fans and anglers, it also features a summit on conservation.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Better collaborative effort between involved anglers and state agencies should be the number one goal going forward to address issues related to conserving and enhancing fisheries.

That was the ultimate objective agreed upon by B.A.S.S. Nation conservation directors and state fish chiefs and biologists during the final session of the Conservation Summit, presented March 6-8 in conjunction with the 50th Bassmaster Classic on nearby Guntersville Lake.

"I want you to walk away thinking you have a direction, something you can feel confident in," said Jessica Feltz of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who led the facilitated session."

Organized by geography into six groups to discuss options, participants also determined that presenting unified messages regarding issues, especially those that are controversial, is a good way to achieve that goal. Using videos and social media to diversify presentation of that content is another.

"Social media can be great, but it can be your worst enemy too," cautioned one group. "What we send has to be good information."

Another pointed out that the growth of bass fishing at the high school ranks is an important consideration. "We need to connect with the youth. We need to tap into that, not just older anglers. We need to let youth know about the issues of today."

Others added that information needs to be both "digital and personal."

Saturday's session organized by B.A.S.S.'s national conservation director Gene Gilliland consisted of presentations related to conservation topics that were to be goal considerations. In addition to angler/agency interaction, they included addressing fish care, illegal introductions, aquatic invasive species such as Asian carp and fact and fiction regarding aquatic plant management.

Ben Batten of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission provided an example of how anglers and agencies can better work together. Last fall, his state convened a Black Bass Angling Forum, inviting anglers, industry and other stakeholders to attend.

"There are three parts to fishery management," he said. "Fish are the easiest. Habitat is more complicated. But people are the part that we've done the worst with. We're trying to improve that."

He pointed out that his state boasts a Black Bass Facebook page with 5,685 followers, as well as "constant contact" emails and a human dimensions coordinator.

Jason Barnucz of the Ontario B.A.S.S. Nation related the findings of a September study that looked at oxygen, temperature and fish waste in livewells; weigh-in facilities; and live release boats. One of the biggest takeaways was that recirculation often is inadequate for maintaining healthy oxygen levels in livewells, especially during warm weather.

"We recommend using auto/fill," he said, adding that "many anglers don't know how to operate their livewells."

In a related presentation, Lee Grove of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission revealed how piercing metal cull clips compare to non-penetrating plastic clamps that generally are believed to be "more humane." Under controlled conditions, he explained, holes from the penetrating clips healed and "there was no difference between clips for direct mortality."

"But don't lift fish by the clips," he warned.

In a third fish-care presentation, Hal Schramm, a fish care expert retired from the U.S. Geological Survey and Mississippi State, said, "Heat kills."

"Tournaments will kill some bass at 91 degrees, no matter what you do," he added, pointing out that minimizing stress is key to improved survival rates in warm water.

But, he pointed out, "Tournament-related mortality is a social issue. Bass populations are healthy. You guys are making a difference, and (most) agencies don't think that mortality is an issue."

Jason Henegar from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spoke about his state's efforts at containing and removing Asian carp, especially from the Tennessee and Cumberland River systems. "Natural reproduction in Tennessee seems to be limited so far," he said. "Mostly they move through the locks. One fish moved from Kentucky Lake to Pickwick and then back to Barkley."

He added that his state is looking to harvest 4 million pounds of silver and bighead carp from the Tennessee and Cumberland this year. And he highlighted the fact that the federal government is set to provide $25 million to combat the carp invasion during 2020.

"Management requires much more than any one state can do," he said. "We need research, and we need barriers to slow them down."

Chad Tokowicz from the American Sportfishing Association added that aquatic and terrestrial invasive species cause an estimated $120 billion damage annually.

Another threat, meanwhile, is the Alabama bass, which is being moved illegally by anglers. North Carolina and Tennessee now are ground zero for the non-native fish, which outcompete largemouths and hybridize with smallmouths, but increasingly, Virginia waters also are at risk.

"Anglers think that they know more than the biologists," said Bill Frazier, North Carolina conservation director. "Anglers are intentionally moving the fish, and they're bringing in herring to feed them."

Corey Oakley from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission added, "They tend to overtake other bass species, especially in clear, rocky lakes. We don't know the limits of them, and all you're left with are Alabama bass.

"We have them everywhere," he said, emphasizing that the invaders have been confirmed in six fisheries, including Lake Norman, and are thought to be present in 11 others.

Out West, smallmouth bass are causing problems in some Idaho fisheries and not in others, explained Joe Kozfkay of Idaho Fish and Game. "In Dworshak, we've got some of the largest smallmouth bass in the country, up to 9 pounds, and they're not negatively impacting native species," he said.    

"The problem is in drainages with anadromous species, where smallmouth eat smolts (young salmon)."

Jay Ferrell from the University of Florida Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants emphasized the need to convey accurate information to anglers regarding herbicide use for hydrilla and other invasive plants.

"We're seeing a lot of misinformation, especially on social media, and we're seeing a lot of people saying that invasive plants don't require management," Ferrell added.

The truth is just the opposite, he said. If quickly growing and spreading plants are not contained, they block light penetration, prevent wind action and shed massive amounts of organic matter, all of which result in low oxygen.

"Also, we're seeing people saying that herbicides cause sores or fin problems," Ferrell added. "They do not. There are two pathogens around in the water almost all the time, and when fish are stressed, they can't fight them off."

He added that "acute stress" in livewells can cause damage and abnormalities to fins.

Brett Hartis, aquatic plant management program leader for Duke Energy explained that managing invasive plants is an “inconvenient truth,” but all stakeholders, especially anglers, must be involved in the plant management process.

During the Saturday evening banquet,  John O’Keefe, Yamaha’s Senior Specialist for Government Relations told Summit attendees about the new Rightwaters initiative which builds on the company’s longstanding leadership and commitment to environmental stewardship, sustainability and conservation. 

“The Rightwaters initiative will focus on clean water, fighting the spread of aquatic invasive species, habitat restoration and supporting scientific research,” said O’Keefe. 

Better angler/agency collaboration in presenting accurate and unified messages can help address all of these issues, conservation directors and biologists decided during the facilitated session on Sunday.

The Summit was sponsored by Yamaha, AFTCO, Huk Performance Fishing, the American Sportfishing Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Foundation and Aquatic Plant Management Society, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, American Fish Tree, New Pro Products and Carhartt.