Conservation groups petition Minnesota DNR to protect native “rough fish”

Formal request seeks science-based management of fish that have long been largely ignored.

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River redhorse — protected by Wisconsin, open to unlimited harvest in Minnesota. (dexternienhaus/iNaturalist)

The Izaak Walton League of Minnesota has submitted a petition to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources requesting the agency come up with plans to protect and regulate harvest of various native fish species currently classified as “rough fish.” The appeal asks the DNR to protect the species from overharvest, because current regulations mean many species have no limits on killing the fish.

“The Minnesota DNR must amend its rules … pertaining to possession limits, closed season and allowable gear types, such that populations of native rough fish are sustainable in perpetuity,” the petition reads.

Native rough fish species currently lacking significant protection include suckers, mooneye and goldeye, freshwater drum, bowfin, gar, and bullheads. Most of these species are found in the St. Croix River and its tributaries, which is a popular destination for

The groups advocating for protecting these fish say their current lax management is not based in any science, and is leaving important species vulnerable. In particular, with the rise of bowfishing, harvests of rough fish have rapidly increased in the past decade.

In 2009, Minnesota legalized using lights for bowfishing at night, leading to higher harvests. In 2011, it opened an early bowfishing season that lets the hunters target fish during their vulnerable spawning season. Since then, bowfishing has become particularly popular on parts of the St. Croix River.

Three years ago, the DNR has documented a bowfishing tournament on the Mississippi River that resulted in the harvest of at least 35,000 lbs of fish in a single night, of which three-quarters were native species. The dead fish were “disposed of” in farm fields as fertilizer.

The petition points out that many of the fish species are long-lived, living to 40-years-old to older than 100 years. This means harvest can have a significant impact on their population, as it takes a long time for fish to reach maturity and reproduce. Additionally, many of the species play important roles in aquatic ecosystems, like helping native mussels reproduce, and transporting nutrients. They are also food for many animals.

“Native rough fish are critical to a sustainable aquatic ecosystem,” according to the petition. “Many are forage for game fish, birds and mammals – and they provide many other ecosystem services.”

Minnesota’s lax regulations also lead to confusing disparities in how some fish species are managed on the St. Croix and elsewhere. Several species deemed “rough fish” in Minnesota are designated as threatened or endangered in Wisconsin. This means that, goldeye, blue sucker, and river redhorse, which Wisconsin carefully protects, are open to nearly unlimited harvest by Minnesota.

Last spring, the Minnesota legislature nearly passed a bill that would have required the DNR to do much of the management the new petition requests. Despite making it into the environmental omnibus bills, the session ended without passage of that legislation.

The petition was also signed by environmental groups including the Friends of the Mississippi River, Clean Up the River Environment, and the Minnesota Conservation Federation. It was submitted under a state law that allows for such requests, and gives the DNR 60 days to respond. Read the full petition (PDF).


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3 responses to “Conservation groups petition Minnesota DNR to protect native “rough fish””

  1. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    This is an important issue. Thank you for raising awareness, Greg!

  2. Allen H Andrews Avatar

    Changes must be made to the perception that “rough fish” species are sacrificial animals with no importance. They are essential components of healthy aquatic ecosystems and they are incredibly vulnerable to the highly effective bow fishing industry due to their spawning habits. Indiscriminate killing and wanton waste of these fishes must stop if we want to enjoy clean and health river ecosystems. Does it make sense to cut down the old growth forest when what you want is a health forest? That is what is happening to the age structure of these populations — the oldest age classes are being lost to a short sighted and unregulated industry.

    1. Rick Neville Avatar
      Rick Neville

      Thanks Allen, well said and great analogy. This is a National Park! would this be allowed in Yellowstone?

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Conservation groups petition Minnesota DNR to protect native “rough fish”