Minnesota legislation seeks to improve management of misunderstood fish

DNR supports effort to study and recommend changes to regulations that currently leave several species vulnerable.

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Silver redhorse, St. Croix River (Samuel Taylor/iNaturalist)

Significant changes could be on the way for how Minnesota regulates fishing for numerous species previously considered “rough fish.” Proposals moving forward through the state legislature would have the Department of Natural Resources revise its rules for numerous species that are largely unmanaged today.

Existing fishing regulations in Minnesota have specific limits for “game fish,” like walleye, bass, and pike. Meanwhile, fish that aren’t as popular with some anglers, or were mistakenly believed to be overabundant, have been ignored. The result is lax limits and confusing rules.

“First and foremost, this bill is necessary because the current statutes are incomplete and ambiguous,” said Tyler Winter of Native Fish for Tomorrow.

A key part of the legislation is a requirement to split regulations so native and invasive fish are no longer lumped together. Currently, some species of carp are in the same category as native fish, contributing to misconceptions and possible overharvest.

The legislation has already been heard in its first committee hearings in both the House and Senate. It was voted through the House Committee and tabled in the Senate. Advocates are optimistic.

“Given the support we have seen for this, and the relatively tight deadlines, I anticipate a comprehensive ‘No Junk Fish’ bill in 2024 that will create separate native and invasive fish categories,” Winter recently told St. Croix 360.

DNR support

A big reason for optimism is the bill’s support from the Minnesota DNR. Pat Rivers, Deputy Director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, has testified at both hearings alongside Winter. The legislation is intended to hire someone to work full-time at the agency on rough fish conservation and regulation. It would provide $134,000 over each of the next two years for the purpose.

Rivers said his team has already been meeting with numerous people and groups with an interest in the issue, from conservationists to bowfishers and commercial anglers. They plan to hold more meetings this summer as they develop recommendations for new rules.

Species that could be protected by rule changes include bowfin, bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo, burbot, longnose and shortnose gar, goldeye, mooneye, and white sucker. Some of these fish are long-lived species that are very sensitive to harvest, which is today unregulated. They are also

While some fish species currently categorized as “rough fish” are rare or threatened, others are abundant. They are essential elements of their ecosystem. They’re food for bald eagles, otters, and other fish. And in a rapidly changing world, their future is also uncertain.

“The time to protect common species is while they are still common,” Winter told the legislative committees.

Winter describes himself as a “rod and gun conservationist,” seeking to protect native fish in part because he likes fishing for them, and in some cases, eating them. And he promotes fishing for the species because he thinks some of the most knowledgeable advocates for wildlife are those who pursue them.

He says there are many reasons the state’s underappreciated “rough fish” deserve study, management, and protection. He holds a special permit to fish for rare and threatened species in Wisconsin, so he can catch and release endangered river redhorse. Another day, he might fish in Minnesota for the common shorthead redhorse, and make some delicious fish sticks for his family.

Broad benefits

The bill in the House of Representatives, H.F. 245, is sponsored by Rep. Sydney Jordan, while the Senate first author is Sen. John Hoffman. The Senate version, S.F. 188, includes four other cosponsors at the time of this writing, while the House version has five cosponsors.

The effort to reclassify and protect rough fish in Minnesota is also supported by the Izaak Walton League’s Minnesota chapter, a century-old organization that has long brought together hunters, anglers, and environmentalists.

“These valuable fish face the same threats as game fish—along with the additional threat of increasing and, in some instances, unlimited harvest,” wrote John Rust, chapter president.

I went redhorse fishing with Winter last summer, on an anonymous St. Croix River tributary. The St. Croix and its tributaries are home to many “rough fish,” including threatened species like river redhorse, blue sucker, and black buffalo. Recently, Winter pointed out that the stream we were on had numerous health problems, from excessive erosion to a disused dam. He said he believes the new legislation will help address such issues.

“It gets little attention because it is a small warmwater stream full of ‘rough fish’,” he wrote. “We saw how the habitat is degrading. We saw a pointless dam blocking fish migration. Fixing all those things will be easier when statute makes native fish worthy of conservation.”

First, the legislation just needs to go through a few more committees, floor votes, and the governor’s desk.


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5 responses to “Minnesota legislation seeks to improve management of misunderstood fish”

  1. Troy Avatar
    Troy

    I support the cause in general, but the devil is in the details.

  2. Gary Solomonson Avatar
    Gary Solomonson

    I agree with Troy and a concentrated study is a great place to start. The story was appreciated to raise awareness and my lack of understanding for the greater role of rough fish.

  3. Doug Keran, PhD Avatar
    Doug Keran, PhD

    I do support this bill. I taught natural Resources Management at Central Lakes College for 40 + years.
    Like all ” nongame ” these overlooked species have a role to play in ecosystems.
    Doug Keran, PhD in ecology
    kerdolian@gmail.com

  4. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    I agree with eliminating the idea of “rough fish”. I’ve grown to appreciate the many attributes each of our native species contributes to ecosystems.

  5. Tyler Howard Avatar
    Tyler Howard

    I can appreciate Tyler Winter and Pat Rivers passion for under represented fish species. I too would like to see supportive conservation efforts. My concern is the tendency to develop a linear group momentum often leading to polar regulation extremes. I hope for a gradual, measured, simplifying approach to future native fish regulations.

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Minnesota legislation seeks to improve management of misunderstood fish