The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently submitted a report with several proposals for changes to management and protection of so-called “rough fish” species. The report concerns 23 kinds of fish with few regulations on harvest, which have become causes of concern about long-term population stability.
The state legislature directed the DNR last spring to develop the report “with recommendations for statutory and rule changes to provide necessary conservation measures and research needs” for these fish species. The agency consulted with a group of conservationists, anglers, bowfishers, and others, Native American tribes, a public survey, and existing information about the fish.
Fish currently included in the “rough fish” category include native species including redhorse, bowfin, bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo, burbot, longnose and shortnose gar, goldeye mooneye, and white suckers. The designation means few regulations or restrictions on harvest, and that these fish, often overlooked, have fascinating life histories, unique adaptations, and play critical roles in the aquatic ecosystem.
“Conservation interest in native rough fish has become a higher priority because research has demonstrated that native rough fishes are integral to healthy aquatic communities and deliver critical ecosystem services,” the report says. “Population status of many of these species is not well understood, but multiple potential threats to long-term sustainability have been raised, including impacts of harvest.”
The recommendations fall into three broad categories: legislative actions, research, and DNR actions.
The report recommends the legislature take two actions at this time. First, all instances of the term “rough fish” in state law should be replaced with “native rough fish.” This would primarily separate carp of various species that were brought to Minnesota by humans from the many native kinds of fish to currently categorized as “game fish.” Second, the DNR asks the legislature to give the agency authority to conduct expedited rule-making for native rough fish. This would allow it to more quickly develop harvest limits for some of these species.
One challenge with understanding existing rough fish populations and threats to them is a simple lack of scientific knowledge. The report provides a long list of questions and research needs to begin filling the gaps. The DNR says research should initially focus on understanding the size, structure, and health of various native rough fish populations. The report lists the priority species as, in order: bowfin, gar, redhorses, buffalo, suckers, goldeye, quillback and carpsuckers, mooneye, and freshwater drum.
Future research could include using fish-tagging to track and monitor more species in more locations, identifying spawning habitat, The report also includes projects already getting off the ground with partners at Bemidji State University and the University of Minnesota. New assistant professor at the U of M, Dr. Solomon David, will develop an assessment of inland gar populations. These prehistoric fish, found in the St. Croix River, have been David’s research focus since his time in Louisiana. He relocated to St. Paul last year, bringing his expertise to the state at a time when it is clearly needed.
Lastly, the DNR includes numerous actions the agency plans to undertake in the near future. One key step will be hiring a new fish biologist who will focus on native rough fish, a position that was funded by the legislature last year. It will also review wanton waste, which would be an important aspect of any new possession limits, and the possibility of designating some native rough fish as endangered in the state.
“Several native rough fishes have limited distribution in Minnesota, are found in extremely low densities, and/or have questionable population status that should be considered for addition to the state’s list,” the agency reports. It also says there may be fish currently designated that could be removed from the list if new research reveals their population is healthier than previously thought.
The DNR also plans develop a proposal to license bowfishers, who currently operate under a basic fishing license, while their activity has been compared to hunting. The DNR says they could be managed like spearfishing, and separate licenses would help track numbers of participants. Among other plans, the agency also says it will review commercial fishing, identifying areas in northwestern Minnesota for possible closure to the industry.
In addition, the DNR intends to launch new education and outreach initiatives and begin improving habitat for certain fish species.
The legislature reconvenes on February 12, when it could begin considering the report’s recommendations.