Smith: Legislative intervention has tipped fish balance in scores of lakes

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2014 - 8:15 AM

A change in 'angler attitude' is needed to protect the future of the walleye and perch populations.

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Minnesota has allowed anglers to keep too many big northerns over the years, tipping the biological ­balance in scores of lakes and leaving many teeming with small ‘‘hammer-handle’’ northerns that are hurting walleye and perch populations.

That’s according to a retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, who predicts a dim future for quality walleye and northern fishing on hundreds of Minnesota lakes unless major fishing regulation changes are made.

“We need to do something ­drastic,’’ said Jim Lilienthal, 67, of rural Brainerd, a member of Anglers for Habitat. “It will take restrictive regulations like we’ve never dreamed of to correct the situation.’’

Such as allowing — and encouraging — anglers to take an unlimited number of northerns under 24 inches while allowing none over 24 inches to be kept. Would anglers keep and eat small northerns and release larger ones, in hopes of ­stabilizing the fisheries population?

“It will take a change in angler attitude,’’ he acknowledged.

DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira doesn’t dismiss Lilienthal’s findings, but said “there’s a lot of political and social stress’’ involved in making major changes to fish ­regulations and management.

“We know large pike bring ecological stability to the system; they keep pike numbers under control,’’ he said. “We’ve made some headway with special regulations. And we’ve tried to liberalize bag limits; it doesn’t appear people want them [small northerns].’’

But, he said, “We’ll take a fresh look at it.’’

‘Annihilating perch population’

For decades, anglers have kept bigger northerns and tossed back small ones, hoping they will grow into trophies. Too often, Lilienthal said, that’s not what happens. Instead, the removal of large northerns results in lakes with high densities of stunted northerns that consume small walleye, perch and sunfish — damaging the populations of all three species.

“We’re annihilating the perch population, which in turn increases the vulnerability of juvenile ­walleyes,’’ Lilienthal said.

An avid angler, Lilienthal examined DNR survey data on 1,000 lakes in central and northern Minnesota that are regularly stocked with walleyes. He looked at gillnet catches of northerns and walleyes. He found lakes in Otter Tail County with high densities of small northerns had half as many walleyes as lakes with more balanced northern populations.

“It clearly shows the statewide northern pike regulation is the cause of the high density small northern pike crisis on 374 of ­Minnesota’s 722 stocked walleye basins in central and north-central Minnesota,’’ Lilienthal said.

While Pereira acknowledges there is a growing northern pike problem, he said there’s no ­evidence it’s causing a widespread walleye problem.

“We’re not brushing it under the carpet,’’ he said. “We’re taking what he is saying seriously.’’

The statewide regulation allows anglers to keep up to three ­northerns, including one over 30 inches.

“That’s totally unsustainable,’’ Lilienthal says. The regulations allow too many big fish to be taken, he said, while preventing the needed removal of small northerns.

“One fish over 30 inches per year is more realistic than one over 30 inches per day,’’ Lilienthal said. “We can’t afford to lose those big fish.’’

Lilienthal suggests dramatic changes are needed on problem lakes: Perhaps allowing unlimited harvest of northerns under 24 inches, while allowing none over 24 inches to be kept.

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