The fish of the St. Croix River and its tributaries in northwest Wisconsin helped make Andrew Rypel who he is today. The professor of fish ecology at the University of California – Davis grew up spending summers in Burnett County and the surrounding area, on trips from his family’s home near Milwaukee.
Led by his father, Rypel and his siblings took numerous 2-3 day canoe trips. Fishing was a primary focus, usually focused on bass, northern, or walleye.
“My dad loved to canoe the St. Croix and fish and hunt on its tributaries, like the Yellow, Clam, Namekagon and Wood Rivers,” Rypel says. “These were formative experiences for me.”
One day on the St. Croix, the crew tried targeting a new species. They used nightcrawlers to catch a couple redhorse suckers, and decided to try eating them for the first time.
“Lo and behold, they had a delicious firm and flaky white meat,” Rypel says.
It was part of an expanding appreciation for the rich web of life along the rivers, and it is part of the reason Rypel has made a career studying fish and their conservation.
Redhorse suckers are a misunderstood and much maligned fish, along with other species that are often called “rough fish.” Rypel has recently co-written a paper published in the flagship journal of the American Fisheries Society, describing why the very concept of “rough fish” is both incorrect, harmful, and rooted in racism, and how fisheries managers can be better stewards of these ignored species.
The issue has begun coming up more recently in the region. This year, Minnesota passed legislation to reclassify gar and begin regulating its harvest, after decades of abuse with the fish listed as a rough fish not deserving protection.
Rypel first noticed such mistaken attitudes as a boy on the St. Croix River system.
“Occasionally, I would meet fishers on the banks of these systems that would be throwing these native fishes onto the banks and calling them ‘trash fish’ or mistaking them for ‘carp,’” Rypel says.
The many types of suckers and other species not usually targeted by white anglers are native to the St. Croix and its tributaries, and important part of the ecosystem. They are necessary to the web of life that includes the more popular game species. They are prized by people of indigenous cultures, who have long been sustained by suckers. They are often harvested without limit, and even killed and left to waste.
Minnesota and Wisconsin both have loose limits on harvesting these fish, and variously refer to them as “rough fish” and “under-utilized fish.”
Rypel’s new paper explains the history of how these fish have been managed, and why.
In the depth of winter, the Ojibwe people were not only cold, they were hungry. By the end of January, hunters typically had a hard time finding any prey in the frozen forests, and their clans experienced the worst hunger of the year.
“It was at this time that Sucker fish, seeing the Anishinaabe suffering, decided to give his life so that the Ojibwe may live on.
“February was traditionally a time when the women would begin netting more and more Suckers through the ice. Likewise, the men would increasingly find the Sucker more plentiful when spearing through the ice or in open running water.”
The people recognized the sacrifice and honored the fish as a noble creature. In the Ojibwe language, the month of February’s name translates to “Sucker Moon.” This relationship between Ojibwe and suckers continues to this day, but modern fish management doesn’t take it into account. Suckers are almost totally unprotected and unregulated, a sacred fish relegated to expendable.
It’s a story that has been repeated through the history of colonization: white male scientists and wildlife managers ignoring indigenous knowledge and relationships, and the people and the species suffering because of it. Rypel says he loves the field of fisheries science, but almost all its leaders have been white males, and it has hurt conservation efforts.
“We have done a disservice to our tribal partners by roundly ignoring the importance and significance of so many native fishes,” Rypel says. “And we’ve even codified our ambivalence or out-right war on native fishes through our fishing regulations.”
Ignoring and discarding indigenous wisdom has worked against healthy fisheries. Along with suckers, fishery managers have long relegated species like buffalo, sheepshead, bowfin, and goldeye to the “rough fish” category, with year-round seasons and no limits on harvest. But these species are more important and more sensitive than most managers knew.
Treasures, not trash
Only recently have biologists begun to realize how special and fragile some of these fish are. For example, bigmouth buffalo can live for more than 100 years, and only reproduce infrequently, if they even make it to maturity. Wanton killing of them can be a serious setback to the population. Some of these species are believed to have now begun to decline rapidly.
Meanwhile, other fish like the goldeye have been found to play an important role for native mussel reproduction, another asset to the ecosystem. But because fishery managers, almost entirely white and male for the past two centuries, didn’t see their value, the fish have been mostly ignored for study or conservation. They can be harvested without consideration of the impact on the fish, the food web, or other people.
“We must all realize that fishes judged ‘rough’ or ‘trash’ by some, could concurrently be considered ‘amazing,’ ‘attractive,’ or ‘important’ by others,” Rypel and his colleagues write in their paper.
In fact, two fish species long considered worthless are some of the only predators for invasive carp. Killing bowfin or gar can actually help non-native species. And sometimes people just don’t know what they’re missing until they learn.
“There was a time when northern pike, lake sturgeon and catfish were all viewed as ‘trash fish,’” Rypel says. “But again, attitudes of anglers changed, and slowly, folks realized these were fun and delicious fish species too.”
The issue of which fish are carefully managed and which are left to fend for themselves has taken on increased urgency in the past decade, in part because of the rise in popularity of bowfishing. The ancient method has become a modern sport, and often targets species considered “rough fish,” like the suckers and bigmouth buffalo. The St. Croix River has become a popular destination.
The growth of bowfishing has put new pressure on the populations of several species. Many participants might think they are doing an ecological service, mistakenly believing they are killing non-native fish, or simply eliminating competition for traditional “game fish.” But the fish killed in the St. Croix and many other waterbodies are actually native for the most part. And rather than helping walleye or bass, wiping out other species can upset the ecosystem, hurting every living thing.
“Seeing many ecosystems over the years, often the best fishing I have had is within the landscapes that still have most of their native fishes, including suckers, gar and bowfin,” Rypel says.
But Rypel also says the fast-growing sport could be a positive, as traditional fishing participation has declined. Spending time outdoors and learning about wildlife can instill a strong stewardship ethic, and many in the bowfishing community believe their reputation is being tarnished by a few irresponsible members.
“Ultimately, bowfishing is a lethal act and when it is combined with unlimited bag limits, there is the potential for sustainability issues in many fish populations, especially the ones with long life spans,” Rypel says. “But there are also solutions if we are brave enough to find them.”
Bowfishing may be better compared to hunting than fishing, in particular because there is no chance of catch-and-release. The paper Rypel co-authored suggests that, for example, while deer management is is based on rigorous science, bowfishing for under appreciated fish species is not.
Meanwhile, there is also a growing angling community dedicated to catching non-traditional species, like redhorse. The participants usually practice catch-and-release, and seek to catch as many different species as possible, a celebration of biodiversity.
The research team not only documented the problems of mismanaging “rough fish,” but offered several steps to solve the issue. Most action will need to be taken at the state level, as that is where most fishing and hunting is managed.
First and foremost, they urged government agencies to stop using terms like “rough fish” or “trash fish” in any official communications. They suggest using “native fish,” but provide other options, too.
They also urge departments of wildlife or natural resources to integrate Indigenous knowledge into managing fish, re-examine liberal bag limits for many native species and possibly lowering the limits until science confirms higher levels are sustainable.
On some issues, they say there simply isn’t enough information to know what to do yet. The team pointed out several areas where additional scientific research is needed. The number of studies published each year provided a compelling case for how under-studied fish like suckers are. They found that 27 popular gamefish species in North America were the subject of almost 1,700 studies per species each year. For 28 species called “rough fish,” 149 papers were published per species. “Game fish” receive 11 times more research than other species.
One place more science and better management is needed is the relationship between mussels and native fish. Many mussels, some of which are federally Endangered species, depend on certain fish species to carry the mussel’s larvae for a time. The authors say agencies should “co-manage” species that are interdependent, like fish and mussels that play parts in each other’s life cycles. They point out that mussels losing host fish could put the fragile species at risk.
“Many endangered mussels use native fishes classified as ‘rough fish” as their hosts,’” Rypel says. “The Endangered Species Act protects the actual mussels, but not the host fishes, which then have high bag limits. This makes no sense!”
The scientists also call for more wanton waste laws, like those that govern much hunting, and prohibit killing in large numbers and wasting wildlife.
Lastly, they say there needs to be more education and outreach to help people, including anglers, better understand and appreciate all native fish.
Fish for the future
Freshwater drum are probably Rypel’s favorite Wisconsin fish.
“It was the species that launched my career in fisheries science, is classified as a ‘rough fish,’ is tasty, and has a completely fascinating biology,” he says. One unique aspect to the fish is that they are host fish for several mussel species, and also eat mussels. “So — in a weird way — they indirectly farm their own food,” Rypel says.
Drum are actually related to the redfish found in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. “This is partly why freshwater drum taste so good — you can essentially make a blackened redfish recipe with them,” he says.
Human relationships with fish go back a long time, and not just walleye or muskie.
In exchange for suckers sacrificing themselves to save the Anishinabe, their Great Spirit rewarded the fish with fecundity. Each fish would spawn hundreds of progeny, who would continue the cycle, and continue to serve as critical food during lean times.
Most winters these days, Ojibwe people still go out on frozen lakes and open creeks to spear fish. The harvest provides welcome protein for the anglers and their community. More science and consistent management can ensure the practice continues far into the future.
Rypel has fished and studied fish across the planet. He says the St. Croix River and its tributaries are still important to him, and truly special in the world.
“Water and ecosystems like this don’t exist everywhere, and fish and wildlife populations throughout the world are massively degraded,” Rypel says. “So, to this day I still come back to these systems to fish, to look around, and to reconnect. It is a reminder of what nature can be, and what strong conservation efforts can produce for wildlife and for people.”
- Rypel, A.L., Saffarinia, P., Vaughn, C.C., Nesper, L., O’Reilly, K., Parisek, C.A., Miller, M.L., Moyle, P.B., Fangue, N.A., Bell-Tilcock, M., Ayers, D. and David, S.R. (2021), Goodbye to “Rough Fish”: Paradigm Shift in the Conservation of Native Fishes. Fisheries. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsh.10660