Shooting fish with a bow and arrow is an ancient form of angling, older than hooks and lines, long considered an efficient way to procure protein from lakes and rivers. Archery in general is viewed as both an art and a sport, with benefits not just for the body but also the brain.
In the past decade, bowfishing has seen a surge in popularity, and fishing managers are still trying to understand the activity, who participates, and the impact on fish and aquatic ecosystems. Bowfishing has become increasingly popular on the St. Croix River during the same time, and could be affecting the river already.
Driven by factors including the rising popularity of bowhunting, new technology, social media, and high-profile tournaments, the sport is rapidly expanding. Its scale and impact on fish populations is only beginning to be understood.
In addition to ecosystem impacts, bowfishers’ preference for fishing at night using boats equipped with bright lights has irritated other people fishing, camping, or living on the river. The lights are powered by noisy generators. This summer, at least one bowfishing tournament took place on the St. Croix without proper permits.
Over the past two years, Dennis Scarnecchia, a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences at the University of Idaho, and Jason Schooley of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, have been studying bowfishing across the United States. They recently published a peer-reviewed paper sharing their results and recommendations.
The pair emphasize that they are not advocating for or against bowfishing, but rather trying to determine how it should be managed to protect native species, ecosystem health, and game fish targeted by traditional anglers.
“Bowfisheries need to be sustainably managed just like all other fisheries,” they say.
Right now, little is known about bowfishing impacts, and the sport remains largely unregulated.
The researchers studied bowfishing in several ways. They attended a large tournament in Oklahoma, where they surveyed participants and discussed management ideas, and documented the numbers and species of fish killed. They also surveyed the fisheries heads of wildlife agencies in every state in the country to see what they knew and what they were doing.
What they found is that bowfishing can have a significant impact on fish populations, that many participants would benefit from education, and many even recognize the need for regulations. They also learned that states know little about who is participating and to what extent, nor are they attempting to manage the sport.
Bowfishing currently requires only a standard fishing license, despite its similarities to hunting. Many of the species targeted by participants don’t have closed seasons or bag limits. And there is obviously no chance for catch-and-release.
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Many bowfishers prefer to target non-native species like carp, believing they are not only enjoying a sport but also performing an ecological service. Removing these invaders can reduce competition for native fish.
But bowfishers also often go after native species that some call “rough fish.” They are anything but expendable. And many times, rough fish are confused for carp, and bowfishers kill important native fish while they believe they’re helping.
These species, not considered “game fish” like walleye, bass, or northern pike, are important to maintaining balance in the river ecosystem. But “rough fish” generally have few, if any, restrictions on their harvest, mostly because they’ve never been much targeted by anglers, and because of outdated ideas about their importance.
Some of these “rough fish” species have also recently been discovered to be ancient, and fragile. Bigmouth buffalo, a popular bowfishing target, can live to more than 100 years old. It breeds only sporadically, but is adapted to live a long life. The only problem is they look a lot like a carp, so they’re frequently killed by bowfishers, whether intentionally or not.
Yet, buffalo are still classified as “rough fish” by both the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources. So are other native species that play an important role in the St. Croix River’s ecosystem, including sucker, redhorse, bowfin, gar, goldeye, mooneye, drum, burbot, and bowfin.
Unlike the big male deer or elk that bowhunters target, the largest specimens of these fish are mostly old females. Anglers of all kinds always go for the biggest fish, meaning more females are harvested than males.
But it’s the number of females that matter for species survival. Harvesting males has less of an impact on the population. Females are the “limiting factor” — the fewer females, the fewer young fish, the smaller number of fish in the future.
“Removal of the largest, oldest, most fecund females needs to be carefully managed and excessive removals, as determined by stock assessment, avoided,” the researchers say.
Nobody knows how long lakes and rivers can sustain this essentially unrestricted killing of certain fish. Bowfishers and fisheries managers have already reported population declines for target species in some popular lakes.
This can have a ripple effect in the underwater world.
“We know that each species has its place in the ecosystem,” says Mark Hove, a University of Minnesota scientist who studies the St. Croix River’s native mussels. “We’ve learned more details about various species recently. For example, we’ve learned that some of the amazing mussel diversity living in the St. Croix River depends solely on one or two of these ‘rough fish’ species to complete their life cycle.”
The rare and endangered mussels found in the St. Croix require certain fish species to host their young for a time, while the tiny creatures grow. Without the fish, the mussels can’t reproduce.
It all adds up to the possibility of a crash in the future, as the interconnected ecosystem is thrown out of balance.
Scarnecchia and Schooley point to previous studies that show how removing too many fish in any “niche” in a lake can upset the whole web of life. A good example is removing too many top predators, resulting in overpopulated prey species that suffer from stunted growth.
“Specific ecosystem impacts are often difficult to predict until they have irrevocably occurred,” the researchers say. “Regulated bowfishing would benefit efforts to maintain a balance among predator fish, prey fish, and other aquatic life.”
They say regulation means considering the population and needs of all of native species, not just the traditional “game fish” species that are most popular. Most fishing regulations were crafted before modern bowfishing, and don’t take into account the sport’s impact on unregulated fish species.
Removing “rough fish” does not mean that an equal amount of “game fish” will somehow replace them, the authors say, correcting a common misunderstanding. In fact, all the fish in the water play a part, and game fish benefit from natural diversity.
“A balanced ecosystem with a diversity of species is most likely to provide the best fishing year in and year out,” say Scarnecchia and Schooley. “Managing our waters as ecological feedlots for only the most popular game fishes does no service to species diversity or to successful fisheries for present and future generations.”
State of management
In a sense, Minnesota is repeating bowfishing history. The state has had a long history of regulating bowfishing, only allowing nighttime bowfishing between 1919 and 1929. Then the state began restricting bowfishing to a handful of lakes. Then in 1945, Minnesota banned using lights at night for bowfishing, and the sport was effectively halted — until a decade ago.
In 2009, the Minnesota legislature legalized bowfishing again, and then in 2013, expanded the open season nearly year-round. The “early fishing” season prohibits bowfishing during that time on most streams, but allows it on the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix Rivers.
The law also includes restrictions on nighttime bowfishing. Between sunset and sunrise, bowfishers aren’t allowed to shoot within 150 feet of a house, or 300 feet of a campsite. Boat noise is limited to 65 decibels, intended to prevent loud generators.
In the years since, the number of people bowfishing has continued to rise, revealing some old problems, and some new ones, and illuminating areas where regulation could help the sport’s long-term sustainability
That’s why researchers Scarnecchia and Schooley say they started trying to find out what wildlife managers, scientists, and others were saying about bowfishing. The found nearly nothing.
“It looked to us that state agencies, as public trust managers of the fishes and bowfishing nationwide, were lagging far behind in managing a sport we had observed to be gaining in popularity in the past decade,” they say.
The pair say they published the paper to help fisheries managers around the country begin working together to understand, study, and manage bowfishing. It will be up to each state to decide what is possible, and what should be prohibited.
“A unified, one-size-fits-all management approach may never occur, and may not even be necessary or appropriate to insure sustainability,” they say.
They add that despite a deficit of reliable information, enough is now known about the sport and its impacts to take some immediate actions. They say state agencies should start monitoring bowfishing participation, and use tournaments to determine what species are most harvested.
Agencies should also work together through their professional associations, the authors say. The managers need to study how they can develop and enforce regulations, including spawning season protections or time restrictions, bag limits, managing and monitoring tournaments, and providing information and education for participants.
With the way things are going, bowfishing’s explosion in popularity could be short-lived, as anglers deplete populations, disrupt the ecosystem necessary for game fish, and lose support from the public and fisheries managers.
But, with the right management, the sport could continue far into the future, just as it already has for thousands of years.
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