Gary Barnard retired in 2019 as Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji, ending a 43-year DNR career. In this interview he says he disagrees with a legislative proposal to cut the statewide walleye limit from six to four, and says many other DNR fisheries professionals oppose it, also. DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen's office, however, supports the idea.
Q Lost in the discussion of reducing the statewide walleye limit from six to four is that fishing generally is very good in Minnesota and has been for a number of years.
A I agree. I don't know, in fact, what the problem is we're trying to fix with the proposed walleye-limit reduction. With walleyes, for example, if reduced abundance is detected in a given lake, or perhaps smaller-size fish, a rational discussion ensues about how to address the problem. Then a management plan is developed using tools we have available, including stocking or perhaps imposition of a slot limit or even a limit reduction. None of that has happened because no statewide walleye "problem'' has been identified.
Q One argument for cutting the walleye limit from six to four is that most of the state's 10 largest naturally reproducing walleye lakes are already at four walleyes. Outliers among these include Mille Lacs, with its one-walleye limit, and also Winnie and Cass, which have six-walleye limits. If four is good for most of these lakes, why not the smaller walleye lakes, too?
A It's not the four-walleye limits that are the primary management drivers on these lakes, but the slots, or size restrictions. They are far more important than the bag limits, in part because they affect anglers' harvest with the first or second fish caught. Take Upper Red, for example. The walleye limit is four, but only one walleye is allowed over 17 inches. The first walleye therefore will be legal no matter its size. But walleyes subsequently caught could either be kept or would have to be returned to the lake depending on their size. That's the primary management tool, not the bag limit.
Q These slots, or size restrictions, on some lakes seem routinely in flux.
A On our larger lakes, the DNR conducts annual walleye surveys that show changes that might be occurring to walleye abundance, size and/or spawning stock. If it's determined a management change is needed it's more likely to be to the slot than the limit. It's important also to note that anglers' harvest is among management techniques a fisheries manager has in his or her toolbox. Sometimes, in fact, a higher harvest is needed to trigger a desired response from a lake's walleye population.
Q Regarding slots, DNR fisheries managers seem to have changed their thinking over the years from large protected slots — say from 17 to 26 inches, which were more broadly used in previous years than they are today — to "one over'' walleye regulations, such as the ones currently on Upper Red and Leech.
A There has been a progression. As we evaluated those larger slots over the years, we found they sometimes had unintended consequences. By restricting harvest with the larger protected slots, we started stacking up big fish in some of our lakes. This buildup of biomass, in turn, affected the recruitment of young fish into a lake's walleye population. That's why slots, say, on Leech and Winnie were adjusted, albeit in different ways. In 2019, the Leech protected slot of 20 to 26 inches was eliminated and changed to "one over'' 20 inches — while the limit of four stayed the same. On Winnie, the protected slot until 2015 was 17 to 26 inches. Now it's 18 to 23 inches. But the limit on Winnie also was unchanged, at six. The intent with both of these regulation adjustments was to increase harvest, in part because the walleye population could sustain it, but also because, again, harvest can help sustain and even grow a walleye population by cycling fish through the system and encouraging recruitment of young fish. Slots can serve positive gains, but they can also repress recruitment. Thus their occasional adjustments.
Q But the state's "second tier'' walleye lakes, unlike the "Big 10,'' aren't surveyed annually. So they don't have the benefit of real-time information like the larger lakes do.
A True, but I want to stress again that because some of our larger lakes are governed by four-walleye limits, it's a stretch, biologically, to say the four-fish limit should be applied to the state's 1,000 or so other, smaller walleye lakes. As to the lack of annual surveys on the smaller walleye lakes and any presumed problems walleyes might be experiencing as a result, it's incorrect to think these lakes are being overharvested by anglers or threatened in another way and that DNR fisheries managers don't know about it because the lakes aren't surveyed annually. The smaller walleye lakes are surveyed about every five years. If there's a problem that's detected and if it's harvest-related, the local fisheries managers will come up with an action to resolve the problem in that lake. This in no way means a statewide four-walleye limit should be applied to all of our lakes. When you do that, you take a tool out of a manager's toolbox, namely angler harvest, that can be used to address a problem.
Q Advocates for the lower walleye limit make the case, accurately, that the increased use of more sophisticated electronics, together with the proliferation of invasive species that in some cases seems to reduce walleye production, calls for an angler limit reduction — if not to address current problems, then to "act proactively'' to ward off problems down the line.
A Let's look at the idea of a lake's reduced walleye production due to invasive species. If that happens to a lake, overharvest didn't cause the problem, so reducing harvest isn't going to solve it. Similarly, if walleye size in a lake is a problem, cutting the limit won't solve it. Slot or "one over'' regulations would be far more effective for improving size structure. Additionally, across Minnesota there are too many walleye lake types, such as naturally reproducing, fry-stocked or fingerling-stocked, and too many management strategies to be applying a one-size-fits-all walleye harvest approach. If a lake manager sees a problem, it's up to him or her to address it, and that can best be done if all options are available.
Q If reducing walleye limits is such a bad idea, why is the DNR commissioner's office supporting it?
A Many DNR professionals I've talked to don't see a need for it. My understanding is that some angler groups wanted the change, and these groups were working with the DNR fisheries technical committee about the limit-reduction idea. But the technical committee basically didn't see a need for a statewide change. The way the species technical committees typically work is they identify a problem, as they did with northern pike and bluegills, for instance, then develop management strategies to address the problem. In this case a statewide walleye problem wasn't identified, so there wasn't a need for a solution. Getting no satisfaction from the technical committee, the groups then went to their legislators and the commissioner's office to attempt to get the walleye limit cut. What frustrates me is that throughout my career and the careers of other DNR fisheries managers and biologists, that's what we do: manage walleye lakes. Stocking. Surveys. Assessments. Develop management plans that incorporate actions to address identified problems. That's how we operate. It's what anglers' license fees support. To throw all that aside and say we're going to put four-walleye bags on every walleye lake in the state makes no sense.