Some walleye populations in Minnesota could take a hit this year if time-sensitive spring operations for egg-taking and stocking are upended by health precautions for fisheries workers.
State fisheries chief Brad Parsons and others at the Department of Natural Resources were focused this week on finding alternative approaches to jobs that for decades have required clusters of staff members working in tight quarters on docks, lakesides, stream banks and hatcheries.
So far, no operations have been delayed. But Parsons said he and others still were evaluating what changes can be made for staff members to maintain safe distances from each other to avoid the possible spread of COVID-19.
“In the event no walleye eggs are taken this spring, it will have an impact on about 400 lakes that are scheduled for stocking,’’ Parsons said.
Already this spring, South Dakota, Michigan and Indiana have chosen not to conduct egg-take operations. In North Dakota and Wisconsin, operations will be reduced.
In Minnesota, the core work of trapping fish in the wild, stripping them of eggs and mixing them with walleye milt happens when water temperatures approach 42 degrees. In normal springs, the DNR mobilizes in April when waters are in the low 40s. It takes a few days in advance to set up docks, nets and other gear at 15 stations across the state, including the Pike River near Tower, Minn., the Pine River north of Pequot Lakes, and the Cut Foot Sioux spawning site north of Ball Club. Adding to the logistical challenge of maintaining human separation, some of the sites draw daily crowds of hundreds of onlookers.
The fertilized eggs are taken to hatcheries, where two-thirds of hatched fry are stocked into lakes within weeks. The rest are kept in rearing ponds and stocked as fingerlings in the fall.
Parsons said the normal goal is to collect 4,100 quarts of eggs. After hatching, that equates to about 281 million walleye fry.
About 1,100 Minnesota lakes receive walleye from the DNR stocking program; not all of those are stocked every year. For fingerling stocking, the DNR’s goal in a normal year is to stock 120,000 pounds of the baby walleyes, two-thirds of which are raised in the agency’s ponds. Private growers contract to supply the rest. The state’s biggest, most productive walleye lakes don’t require stocking.
The social distance dilemma at Minnesota fish-stocking sites goes beyond walleyes. At DNR’s Crystal Springs Hatchery in Altura, southeast of Rochester, supervisor Luke Jadwin is trying to plan a safe way to move 5,400 steelhead — all a year old — to the North Shore for stocking in Lake Superior’s spawning tributaries.
One idea under consideration is for staff members to use longer nets to transfer the “pre-smolt’’ steelhead, Jadwin said. The existing equipment has required hatchery workers to be in close contact during fish removal from the hatchery and stocking the baby steelhead into streams on the North Shore. Additionally, the hatchery may rely more heavily on its fish pump to move the inventory, Jadwin said. Meanwhile, there’s been talk of acquiring better gloves and face masks for workers involved in the transfer.
“It’s a unique situation for everybody, and everyone around the country is trying to figure out how to do these essential tasks and keep everyone safe,’’ he said.
The historic Crystal Springs hatchery near the south branch of the Whitewater River is the DNR’s new focal point for Lake Superior trout stocking. The facility was forced to close down in late 2015 because of persistent bacterial problems. During the facility’s three-year, disease-free reboot (required before hatchery fish could be released into the wild), the DNR ended its Lake Superior lake trout stocking program and replaced it with steelhead stocking.
Starting next year, Crystal Springs will lean on its own inventory of sexually maturing steelhead to supplement the stocking operation. The hatchery’s newly developed brood stock is needed because wild steelhead egg-taking operations on the North Shore are not dependable year in and year out. Jadwin said the ultimate goal is to supply DNR 120,000 “pre-smolt’’ steelhead each spring for stocking.
Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor Cory Goldsworthy said it’s still a little early in the season to stock this year’s supply of tank-raised baby steelhead. Besides the batch on hold at Crystal Springs, another 29,000, year-old steelhead are ready for stocking purposes at the DNR’s Spire Valley Hatchery. The migratory trout are placed high up in the watersheds that drain into Lake Superior in order for them to imprint on spawning grounds. If they stay home for one or two years before swimming into Lake Superior, their chances for survival increase dramatically.
For anglers, wild steelhead are off limits. But hatchery-raised steelhead are recognizable by a clipped adipose fin and can be kept according to fishing regulations. Fish in the program are scientifically monitored to certify that their DNA remains in close alignment with the DNA of Lake Superior’s wild steelhead.
Goldsworthy said he’s optimistic that this year’s supply of hatchery-raised steelhead will get stocked at some point. But he’s still uncertain if this year’s egg-taking from wild steelhead on the French River will be deemed as work that is safe to do during the pandemic.
“We’re not sure what we’ll be able to do yet,’’ he said.