The Department of Natural Resources will produce a report on Minnesota’s “non-game” native fish, often referred to as “rough fish,” if legislation succeeds this spring. The effort would examine many species that today allow for essentially unlimited harvest.
Minnesota currently considers rough fish to include redhorse suckers, bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo, sheepshead, bowfin, gar, goldeye and bullheads. As scientists have pointed out, the distinction fails to value the fish for angling or the ecosystem. The legislation, dubbed the “No Junk Fish Bill,” was introduced in January by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn of Roseville, and has now been included in broad environmental omnibus legislation.
A House committee held a hearing on the bill in February, with testimony from the DNR, a rough fish citizen advocate, and a fisheries professor from Louisiana who has extensively studied such fish and their management.
“There’s no scientific distinction in the basis for what makes a rough fish or a game fish,” Becker-Finn said at the hearing. She pointed out that in 1890, when the state released the first report on its fish, there was almost no mention of walleye, which were “lumped in with bass and ‘other fish.'” Times change and so does fishing.
Today, the St. Croix River and its tributaries is considered one of the best places to fish for several species of popular rough fish, including redhorse suckers.
The division between “rough” and “game” fish began with 19th-century commercial fishing boats on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Fishing boat crews distinguished between some species that were most economically valuable, and the other “rough fish” species that were kept — but readily thrown overboard if the boat encountered shallow water and needed to lighten its load.
Dr. Solomon David of Nicholls State University in Louisiana explained this history in his testimony, and how early fisheries biologists adopted the term. They then came up with now-disproved theories about how these native fishes were “harming” the game fish that were preferred. In fact, “rough fish” species are critical parts of the lakes and rivers where they live.
“No matter what ecosystem they’re in, a lot of these fish like bowfin and gar serve as apex predators, they help maintain balance in these ecosystems,” David said.
They also serve as essential hosts for mussel reproduction, can show when ecosystems and habitat are healthy and water is clean, and can even store a lot of carbon. Some of the species can live 100 years or more, and only reproduce occasionally, leaving their population fragile. Many other species are simply great to eat and can sustain harvest.
Rough fish angler and advocate Tyler Winter (also a St. Croix 360 supporter) told the legislators that he thinks management is important for many reasons. Winter, who has caught 50 species of Minnesota fish over the past 20 years, said simply regulating fishing for these species will better involve the public and perhaps actually promote rough fish angling to more people.
“I believe that managed hunting and fishing creates stakeholders who are dependent on the resource,” Winter said. “No one enjoys pursuing native fish should want them eliminated.”
Fishing for rough fish also presents an opportunity to attract new people to angling, which is important for everything from funding to stewardship. Rough fish are often abundant, and great fun to catch. “People stop fishing because they don’t catch anything,” Winter said.
The effort comes amid changing attitudes about the fish at the DNR, and some changes to management already. In recent years, it removed the eelpout from the list of rough fish. Last year, the legislature directed the DNR to set seasons and limits for gar, another species found in the St. Croix.
Brad Parsons, a manager in the DNR’s division of fish and wildlife told the lawmakers that he is personally repulsed by the term “rough fish,” and the agency supports efforts to reconsider rough fish.
Walleye and bass might be the popular pursuits for anglers today, but new fishing trends are targeting rough fish, and old industries may object. Legislators discussed the growing popularity of bowfishing, when participants use bows and arrows to often target “rough fish,” enjoying the lack of limits, and resulting in much higher harvests.
Additionally, commercial fishing for the species still occurs on both the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers.
“We have a vital commercial fishing operation in Minnesota, where species like carp and buffalo are harvested for human consumption,” Parsons said. “It’s an important livelihood for many Minnesotans. These fish are good to eat and they are saleable and in many places they are in numbers that commercial fishing is a viable opportunity.”
He said it will be important to include bowfishers and commercial fishing operators in discussions about rough fish management, and some of that outreach has already begun.Committee chair Rep. Rick Hansen pointed out that Native American tribes should also be consulted. Indigenous people have long cultural connections to many rough fish species, and legal rights to be involved in natural resource management.
Parsons also explained that much of Minnesota’s fishery work is supported by federal funds from the Sportfish Restoration Act. It provides financial support, but not for non-game species. It makes things more difficult for the agency.
But, Parsons also said the DNR is interested in better understanding the issues and dealing with them.
“We are very supportive of this concept. These are valuable native species and I get that,” he said.
After the February hearing, an amended version of the bill was included in the House environment omnibus bill. The clause would provide $250,000 to the DNR to evaluate rough fish designations, if any species need additional protection, and what research might be needed to improve management. The DNR would have until next summer to report back to the legislature.
The bill will be considered by the Ways and Means committee on Monday, April 25 and, if it the rough fish report is still included, will be voted on by the full House after that. If it stays in the final bill, it will then be part of negotiations in conference committee with the Senate, which does not include text.
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