Minnesota’s fish hatcheries would get a major checkup if a bill in the state Senate wins support for an advisory group to look over the shoulder of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to improve walleye fishing.

The proposed Reinvest in Fish Hatcheries Citizen-Legislative Advisory Group would consider facility upgrades and look to expand the DNR’s reliance on private hatcheries. It would mix eight citizens with four legislators to study hatcheries, walleye stocking and natural fish reproduction.

“I think we could do better and that’s what we’re trying to do,” state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen said last week at a public hearing. “We have some old fish hatcheries in our state.”

Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is chairman of a key natural resources committee at the Legislature and he proposed the advisory group after hearing complaints from anglers about walleye abundance.

“What I hear sometimes is we’re losing walleye fishing to North Dakota and South Dakota,” Ingebrigtsen said at the Feb. 11 meeting of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee.

His bill has backing from a new fishing foundation formed with industry support. Steve Pennaz, a professional angler aligned with the group, testified that sport fishing has a $3.7 billion impact on Minnesota’s annual economy. The state has amazing multi-species fisheries, he said, but new policies could improve the resource.

“The hatcheries do need funding,” Pennaz said. “They need to be improved.”

In an interview, the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame inductee said stocking is not a cure for all lakes and rivers, but it makes “a ton of sense” where science dictates.

Like Ingebrigtsen, Pennaz said the advisory committee would consider expanding the use of commercial hatcheries. Giving more work to private contractors would also benefit economic development in rural areas, Pennaz said.

“There might be an opportunity for us to look at private versus public or a combination of the two,” he said.

The advisory group would look to stock more fish for the same amount of money, Ingebrigtsen said.

Assistant DNR Commissioner Bob Meier reminded senators at the hearing that 86 percent or more of Minnesota’s walleyes are wild, naturally reproducing fish. Hatcheries are used to supplement walleyes and other fish in certain waters, he said.

DNR Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said in an interview that the agency already partners with private hatcheries. He said there’s DNR feasibility studies in the works to identify how the state should best invest in its hatcheries.

“We do have infrastructure needs,” he said.

The agency in 2017 closed its French River Hatchery near Lake Superior because it was inefficient. In Lanesboro, construction will begin this year on an overhaul of the DNR’s flagship trout hatchery.

The agency’s flagship walleye hatchery is in Waterville, and it clearly needs modernization, Parsons said. It was established in 1952 and is one of 11 cool- and warm-water facilities operated by the state.

Ingebrigtsen’s bill has a provision for the advisory group to examine reviews and analyses of past and present fisheries plans.

The committee would face a deadline of Jan. 15, 2021, to report on its work and provide recommendations.

Parsons said DNR’s fish stocking practices are based on scientific reviews of individual lakes and rivers.

“We are constantly re-evaluating where we stock,” he said. “We’re using the best science to do what we are doing.”

Outside interference with DNR fish stocking is nothing new.

Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, a magazine published by the DNR, reported last summer that the agency reduced the number of walleye fingerlings and the overall number of lakes that it stocked based on a 1986 report from the state auditor. In the mid-1990s, a University of Minnesota review found stocking walleye fingerlings in lakes with natural reproduction wasn’t boosting abundance and could slow the growth of individual fish.

The finding was unpopular at the Legislature, leading to a DNR project that greatly accelerated walleye stocking — doubling the number of fingerlings stocked in 254 lakes around the state. A DNR review later said 70 percent of the 254 lakes saw no improvement in walleye numbers. Then, in 2017, the agency rankled legislators and anglers by reducing stocking on 85 of the lakes and halting stocking on another eight.

Ingebrigtsen’s bill last week passed the committee headed by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. It was sent to the Senate’s Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee. There’s no companion bill in the House.