Dec. 15, 2002

DNR sturgeon proposal meets local resistance

Plan would implement lottery for 300 tags to catch and kill fish

By Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald Staff Writer

BAUDETTE, Minn. - A proposal by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to tighten sturgeon regulations on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River for the second time in two years isn't sitting well with local anglers and resort owners.

The DNR wants to establish a lottery, in which Minnesota residents could apply for 300 tags to kill and possess one sturgeon per year. Anglers who didn't draw a tag could still fish sturgeon during the open season, but couldn't keep any fish. The proposal would further tighten regulations that went into effect two years ago, implementing a 45- to 55-inch "harvest slot" and limiting anglers to killing one sturgeon per year in that size range. Fish larger or smaller must be released.

Nearly 60 people showed up at a public meeting here Tuesday night to protest the lottery plan, which the DNR says is aimed at cutting the annual sturgeon harvest to 7,600 pounds. According to the DNR, the annual sturgeon harvest since 1997 has averaged about 11,300 pounds.

Mike Larson, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, says the agency is part of an international working group, which includes the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Manitou Rapids First Nations Indian tribe and the federal U.S. Geological Survey, that is cooperating to manage the sturgeon population for more large fish. Lake of the Woods and Rainy River have plenty of sturgeon as the fishery recovers, Larson says, but fish of 100 pounds or larger remain rare.

The latest proposal, Larson says, would allow more sturgeon to live long enough to attain that size. All but eradicated from Lake of the Woods and Rainy River by the early 1900s, sturgeon are considered a "species of special concern," Larson said.

"With a species of special concern, we have to make those stocks recover," Larson said. The working group wants "to see some large fish in the population because those are the spawners," he said. "Those are the fish that attain a large size and some people want to catch those large fish."

Walleye impact

Opponents, meanwhile, worry the DNR plan to protect sturgeon will have a negative impact on the booming walleye fishery, the hub of Lake of the Woods' $60 million annual tourist industry. Of special concern is whether growing numbers of the bottom-feeding sturgeon will slurp up too many walleye eggs and hamper reproduction.

"We'd like (the DNR) to study it a little bit more, look at the economic impact of what it's going to do," said Todd Beckel, owner of the Baudette Motel and a member of the Lake of the Woods County Board. "If the lake will only support so many pounds of fish, if there's more pounds of sturgeon, is that going to bring down the pounds of walleye in the lake?

"That is going to affect businesses."

Beckel says anglers staying at the motel during the spring walleye season rarely keep sturgeon. At the same time, he said, locals want the opportunity to keep sturgeon, which only a select few could do under the tag proposal. He says it seems odd that the DNR wants more restrictions now, when only a few years ago, they were trapping sturgeon to stock in the Red River.

"The part that scares me is three years ago they were shipping them away, and now they want to protect them," Beckel said. "I think there should be more studying done before they start making rules. If they can justify it, that's better. We're not trying to get rid of them all, either."

Recently elected to the county board, Beckel said he was at a training session Tuesday night and didn't attend the sturgeon meeting.

Historical evidence

Larson says he hasn't found evidence that sturgeon would displace walleye in either the lake or the river. In looking at commercial fishing records from the late 1800s, Larson says netters reported sturgeon, whitefish and walleyes as the three main species in the nets.

In 1895, for example, netters reported catching 391,168 pounds of walleye and more than 1.5 million pounds of sturgeon.

At that time, Larson said, sturgeon were popular for caviar, and there was little market demand for walleyes. That began to change as sturgeon numbers declined, however, and netters shifted their attention to walleyes. By 1935, Larson said, the walleye harvest had increased to more than 1 million pounds, while the sturgeon take was less than 1,000 pounds.

"The walleyes were always present," Larson said. "They've coexisted for eons" with sturgeon.

And despite local concerns, Larson said the DNR doesn't want to hurt the good walleye fishing anglers currently enjoy on Lake of the Woods, either.

"We indicated at the meeting that we wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the $60 million walleye industry, but they didn't really buy that," Larson said. "There wasn't a lot of trust."

Spring fling

The bulk of the sturgeon harvest takes place in the spring, when numbers of fish stage near the mouth of the Rainy River. This past April, for example, Larson said anglers harvested 7,300 pounds of sturgeon in two weeks.

"Since the stock has recovered, there's a lot of fish in the harvest slot," Larson said. "There's a lot of opportunity to harvest fish, and they're vulnerable because they bite and we're seeing more and more people targeting them."

Beckel says he thinks the sturgeon are vulnerable for a reason.

"When everybody is catching them, (sturgeon) are not in there spawning, they're in there sucking up walleye eggs," Beckel said. "It's hard to say they're going to hurt (the walleyes), but are we willing to risk that?"

Larson said implementing the lottery would require legislative action. Meantime, he said, the DNR is accepting public comments on the proposal until Dec. 31. Despite the vocal show of opposition at the Baudette meeting, Larson said the DNR has received only a handful of written comments. No one showed up at a second public meeting Thursday in St. Paul, and the final meeting on the proposal is scheduled for Tuesday night in International Falls, Minn.

"We'll review the input and move forward from there," Larson said. "See if there's any clear consensus."


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Dokken covers the outdoors. He can be reached at 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, extension 148; or by e-mail at bdokken@gfherald.com.