Sustaining Mille Lacs Smallmouths While Rebuilding Walleye Fishery a Tough Challenge for Minnesota DNR
Maintaining a single world-class fishery in a lake is one of the greatest challenges for a state wildlife agency. As they employ and/or alter regulations, resource managers must consider constantly changing biological and environmental variables, as well as possible economic and social impacts.
And when a lake has two world-class fisheries and one of them is in decline . . .
"It's a complicated mess," said Eric Jensen, a large lake biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
That's the situation that DNR finds itself in at Mille Lacs Lake, site of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship Sept. 15-18. With a five-fish bag of 25 pounds not uncommon, the smallmouth fishery arguably is more robust than ever, earning a No. 10 ranking among the best bass lakes in the nation by Bassmaster Magazine in 2015.
On the flip side, the once productive walleye fishery is in steep decline. In fact it's so steep that the agency finally went all the way and imposed a ban on harvest in 2016, and prohibited the use of live bait, except on launch (party) boats.
At the same time it's been imposing tighter and tighter restrictions on walleye harvest in recent years, it's been allowing increased harvest of smallmouth bass. In 2013, the limit went from one fish to six. This year's it's four.
But Jensen's comment was not intended to suggest that DNR doesn't have sound science to back these decisions. Rather it reflects that management regarding such popular, productive, and economically important fisheries is controversial, as they impact diverse constituencies.
How so? Many walleye anglers want to keep and eat their catch, while most bass anglers catch and release, with no thought given to harvest. But for 2016, at least, meat fishermen can't keep their preferred species. Yet they can take home bass.
As a consequence, bass anglers fear irreparable harm to the smallmouth population. Concurrently, many resorts and other businesses around the lake fear the ban on walleye harvest will do damage local economies, as anglers go elsewhere, where they can keep the fish that they prefer to target.
While a state legislator introduced an ill-fated bill to negate the ban on walleye harvest, the Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation (MBN) joined forces with the newly formed Mille Lacs Smallmouth Bass Alliance (MLSBA) to launch an awareness campaign about the importance of catch and release for sustaining the lake as a world-class bass fishery. They intend to post signs at private ramps around the 132,000-acre lake.
"We want to educate fishermen and businesses too that catch and release, not catch and kill, is the way to go," said Mickey Goetting, conservation director of the MBN, which has started a GoFundMe page to raise $2,750 for the effort.
MBN posted this message on the page: "Smallmouth have become the target as a replacement for walleye table fare. Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation is concerned that increased fishing pressure and a substantial increase in harvest could adversely impact the world-class Mille Lacs smallmouth bass fishery. Smallmouth bass grow very slowly and we need to protect them."
DNR, however, steadfastly maintains that is not sacrificing bass or trying to reduce bass populations to reduce predation on walleye. Rather, its intent is to "provide alternate harvest opportunities, preserve quality sizes, and maintain quality catch rates."
Last fall's gill net survey "showed the highest catch we've ever seen (for smallmouth bass)," Jensen said. "Since 1998, the trend has been steadily upward."
Additionally, 74,150 smallmouth bass were released in 2015, while only an estimated 5,000 were harvested. "Not everyone is keeping bass," he added.
Sadly, the walleye population has been declining for nearly a decade. Causes are uncertain, but potential causes could be the same ones contributing to increasing numbers of hefty bronzebacks. "A lot has been going on at the same time," the biologist said.
That includes increasing water clarity, which benefits bass, primarily sight feeders. Walleye prefer darker conditions. Also, clearer water means less productivity in the form of phytoplankton and zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain for prey fish to eat. "Walleye eat mostly fish, and there's not as many fish," Jensen explained. "Smallmouth also eat crayfish."
With warming water possibly contributing, these changes began even before the introduction of invasive zebra mussels and spiny water fleas. But they seem to have accelerated as the exotics proliferated, gobbling up zooplankton and filtering out much of the lake's energy.
In a nutshell, not enough young walleye have been surviving to maturity and replenishing the population since at least 2008, with numbers being at a 40-year low in 2015. But hope is on the horizon, thanks to a strong year class in 2013, which DNR wants to protect via the ban on harvest.
"As walleye get to 14 inches, they are more desirable and that 2013 class is moving into that size now," Jensen said. "It's strong and it looks like it's going to contribute to spawning biomass. Females grow much larger than males and, in another couple of years, they will really start to contribute."
But bass anglers fear what will happen, as meat fishermen turn their focus to the smallmouth population while walleyes slowly recovers.
"This is a very special fishery with national significance to bass anglers everywhere," said Jim DaRosa, president of the alliance. "Mille Lacs needs to be protected. It may take several years to restore walleye to the levels they once were. We want to be proactive and make sure the smallmouth are healthy and sustainable while the walleye population is being restored."
Bass Regulations History for Mille Lacs
Before 2000: 6 fish, smallmouth and largemouth bass.
2000: 1 fish, 21 inches minimum length.
2013: 6 fish, with one longer than 20 inches. Protected slot of 17 to 20 inches.
2014: 6 fish, with one longer than 18 inches. Season opens with walleye. No fall catch-and-release restriction.
2016 Regulations for Bass, Walleye, Northern Pike
Bass: 4 fish, with one longer than 21 inches. All bass between 17 and 21 inches must be released immediately.
Walleye: From May 14 to Dec. 1, anglers targeting walleye must use artificial bait and immediately release all walleye caught. Night closure beginning May 16, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and continuing through Dec. 1.
Northern Pike: 5 fish with only one longer than 40 inches. all pike 30 to 40 inches long must be immediately released.
For those of you who don't think that sport fishing ever will be banned or even restricted in the Canada and the United States, may I suggest a couple of things?
- Plug "animal rights" into a Google Search a couple of times a week to see what the enemy is doing. Yes, the animal rights (not to be confused with animal welfare) folks pose the primary threat, and they are an integral part of the powerful PC movement and all the idiocy that comes with it.
- Second, acquaint yourself with the facts. I'll help you with that. But many of you won't bother to read all of this. Instead, you will shrug it off as an irrational fear and/or insult me as has happened with a previous post about the threat to recreational fishing posed by a bill introduced into Canada's Parliament (C-246):
1. Although 90 percent of Americans approve of legal fishing and support using fish for food, 25 to 30 percent of people in urbanized states think that angling for sport is cruel. In less urbanized states, the percentage is still about 20 percent.
"The results suggest that in the United States, levels of anti-angling sentiment are consistent with those reported in other post-industrialized countries such as Germany, where stringent regulations on recreational fishing have already been put in place," say the authors of a study, "A Primer on Anti-Angling Philosophy and Its Relevance for Recreational Fisheries in Urbanized Societies," which was published in Fisheries, a scientific journal.
2. In a 2008 survey in Germany, 57 percent thought use of live baitfish is immoral and 65 percent thought the same about "non-harvest-oriented competitive fishing events." Forty percent thought that catch and release is unethical.
Additionally, 35 percent agreed with statements that "fish are suffering unnecessarily due to recreational anglers" and "catching and releasing fish during recreational fishing constitutes unnecessary cruelty to animals."
"Finally, about a quarter (26 percent) thought that there is a pressing need to improve issues of animal welfare in Germany, despite recreational fishing being already heavily constrained and regulated for animal welfare reasons."
3. In Austria, about 20 percent thought that recreational fishing "disturbs the ecological balance and that recreational anglers do no care enough about nature and are only interested in an abundant fish harvest."
4. In Switzerland, the Animal Welfare Act makes the intention of voluntary catch-and-release fishing an offense because it is in conflict with the dignity of the fish and its presumed ability to suffer and to feel pain.
"A similar ruling had already been in force in Germany since the 1980s, in which, based on a combination of arguments related to inherent value and fishing practices thought to induce pain and suffering, activities such as voluntary catch and release, use of live baitfish, use of keep nets, and tournament fishing were partly, implicitly, or explicitly banned.
"Similarly, put-and-immediate-take fishing is found unacceptable because the only justified reason for going fishing is to capture fish as food . . .
"Wider economic benefits created by angling are usually not considered a sufficient justification—it all boils down to the individual benefits experienced by the angler, and here food provision is currently the only acceptable reason."
In conclusion, the study's authors make this frightening appraisal:
In Germany an angler needs a “reasonable reason” to be allowed to fish recreationally and thereby intentionally inflict pain and suffering on the supposedly sentient fish. Currently, the legally accepted reasonable cause is personal fish consumption, and anglers must have the intention to harvest before casting.
"One might be inclined to say, 'It is never going to happen here,' which might have been what the Swiss angling community thought before voluntary catch and release was banned by law in 2008.
"It may only need a willing and able public prosecutor and some judges with anti-angling sentiments to further the case by asking, 'Is recreational fishing reasonable, irrespective of the intention of the angler?'
"Obviously, this development was probably facilitated by poor political support in the recreational fisheries sector, but it also exemplifies how a particular social climate that is concerned with the (suffering-defined) welfare of fish targeted by recreational anglers can have immediate implications for fisheries practice, including constraints on the set of tools available to fisheries managers for managing and conserving wild fish populations."
CLEWISTON, Fla. --- John Jones and Tom Smith were arrested on Lake Okeechobee Friday. Their boat was impounded and their children placed in foster care.
Jack McCoy, a court-appointed attorney for fish found in the livewell, said that he intends to prosecute both to the full extent of the law, under the new federal Animal Protection Act. "Fish have rights, legal rights, and we intend to make an example of these two for the cruel and inhumane way that they were behaving," McCoy said.
"Their fishing tackle, which is now illegal to possess, will be burned. We hope that our actions will send a message nationwide that fishing not only is cruel, but those who participate will suffer the consequences of their barbaric actions."
* * * * * *
Think that can't happen here? Think again.
As anglers, we share this planet with a growing number of people who are divorced from nature and, as a consequence, reality. In addition, they are relentless in pursuit of what they believe is a kinder, gentler, and more enlightened world.
Our side, meanwhile, is populated by millions who just want to be left alone to fish; to idle into a flat cove at dawn, certain that a trophy lies waiting to explode on a topwater; to introduce their children to a peaceful and contemplative pastime that has been passed down from generation to generation; to feel the adrenaline surge as they step up to the weigh-in stand with a heavy bag.
They have no interest in the "issues" that sadly have become so much a part of recreational angling. In fact, a substantial number of subscribers to B.A.S.S. Times likely won't even bother to read this column. Instead, they'll focus on the techniques articles and tournament news, ignoring this topic in much the same way the grasshopper in an Aesop's fable continued to play instead of storing food as winter approached, and, as a result, found itself dying of hunger.
A bill that could lead to a scenario described above already has been introduced in the Canada Parliament. It follows in the wake of similar seemingly surreal, but all too real, legislation in European countries, where sport fishing as we know it no longer exists. And should such a bill ever become law in Canada, its proponents quickly would focus their collective efforts on the United States.
Keep Canada Fishing says this about the Modernizing Animal Protections Act: "Provisions in Bill C-246 clearly make it possible for someone who catches a fish to face criminal prosecution for cruelty to animals. Even the act of baiting a hook with a worm would be considered an act of cruelty according to the bill."
Ostensibly, the bill addresses the deplorable practice of catching and killing sharks for their fins to be sold in Asian food markets. It would prevent the import of fins and prevent finning in Canadian waters.
But a long-time observer of the animal rights movement in Canada and the United States says that's camouflage.
"Bills like this are brought forward under the pretense of protecting puppies and cats, or, in this case, preventing shark finning. These are things any reasonable people would oppose," says Phil Morlock, government affairs chair of the Canada Sportfishing Industry and director of environmental affairs for Shimano.
"But the devil is in the details. If this was only about shark finning, it would say that. But it goes far beyond that."
For example, it would mandate that anyone who kills an animal "brutally" or "viciously" is guilty of an offense, "regardless of whether the animal dies immediately." But it doesn't define those terms.
"For years, animal rights people have tried to portray fishing, hunting and trapping as brutal and vicious," says Morlock, who adds that, if an angler or hunter is charged under this bill, "you never know what a court will decide. Someone could face jail time for taking a fish home or shooting a duck."
Additionally, C-246 would move animals from the "certain property" classification to the Criminal Code dealing with offenses against persons. And there lies the ultimate agenda of the radical animal rights movement.
While they purport to advocate for animal welfare, they really are about giving legal rights to animals, an action that would threaten not only recreational angling and hunting, but commercial fishing, agriculture, and medical research. In other words, they want court-appointed attorneys for bass to prosecute those millions and millions of us who now fish for them.
Whether we live in Canada or the United States, it's time for anglers to accept this new reality, that many people out there don't want us to fish, and they are not going to stop trying to make their dream our nightmarish reality. Occasionally, we must be willing to put our rods down to use the political process to oppose them. Otherwise, they will be taken from us.
(This column appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)