Paul Radomski is a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist and author of the forthcoming University of Minnesota Press book "Walleye: A Beautiful Fish of the Dark.''
In 2001-2002, during the last big Minnesota fish limit revision, Radomski was the DNR scientific adviser and expert witness in the agency's limit revision process.
In the interview below, he discusses the merits of a proposal gaining traction in the Legislature to cut the state's walleye limit from six to four. Linked here are previous interviews on the topic with retired DNR fisheries biologist Gary Barnard of Bemidji and fishing guide Nate Blasing of Brainerd.
Q Should the Minnesota walleye limit be cut from six to four?
A If the question is, "Will a reduction to four reduce harvest such that a sufficient number of walleyes will be saved for the next year or future years?'' The answer is no, probably not. Because most walleye fishing outings result in two walleyes per angler or less.
Here's the back-of-a-napkin math for a walleye fishery over a course of a year: if all anglers who could have harvested six walleyes per outing instead could only harvest only five, the harvest reduction would be about 3%. Alternatively, if all anglers who could have harvested six or five walleyes could only harvest four, the reduction would be about 7%.
Given this, the proposed creel limit reduction likely would not save a measurable number of fish. It's also fair to say anglers wouldn't notice any consequence of the change. These conclusions are widely supported by research.
Q Will going to four walleyes allow more multiple catches, or recycling, of the same fish?
A The answer is yes, that's likely true. But again, it's fair to say most anglers may not see a meaningful change in their catch. Given the distribution of the walleye harvest among anglers, the creel limit would likely need to be three or fewer to see a noticeable effect on recycling. If there is "no pain'' for most, there is "no gain'' for all.
Q Would the proposed limit reduction simplify fishing regulations?
A Yes, it would provide consistency among Minnesota's smaller walleye lakes and most of our current large walleye lakes, where the limit is already four, as well as border-water limits.
Q Do DNR fisheries biologists use certain standards to determine whether limits or other regulatory changes should be made?
A Yes. We must demonstrate the "need'' and "reasonableness'' of a proposal.
For example, when the DNR changed the lake trout limit from three to two, the DNR provided evidence some lake trout fisheries were overharvested by anglers — that was the "need.'' This change was estimated to result in a 10-30% lake trout harvest reduction, depending on the fishery. We also made the case that reduction was "reasonable" — in part because angler surveys and public hearings showed a high level of support for the change.
Q "Socially acceptable'' regulations based on public opinion are common in fishing, aren't they?
A Yes, fishing regulation handbooks are loaded with rules that fundamentally are socially based. Examples include the largemouth bass open season, party fishing and culling. Rules on what constitutes legal tackle also are often based on what a majority of people think provides for "fair chase'' in sportfishing. Today's walleye limit therefore can be considered in part a social regulation that defines what is "reasonable.''
Now, because the issue is being considered in the Legislature and not the DNR, the "reasonableness'' of the proposed walleye limit reduction from six to four is for politicians to gauge as to whether it is sensible and socially acceptable.
Q And the "need?''
A I think the DNR would have a hard time demonstrating the need for a walleye limit change, in part because walleyes are fairly resilient to angling pressure.
Recall that in 2000 walleye limit cuts from six to five and six to four were discussed, and a citizens committee supported a change. Yet there was little or no evidence of walleye overharvest. Nor were there notable changes in walleye sizes. The same is true today: there is little or no evidence of walleye overharvest. But there are Minnesota fisheries with larger-sized walleyes due to catch-and-release fishing and length regulations that protect large fish, which has shifted populations to larger, older fish, thus stabilizing those walleye populations at lower numbers and reducing their vitality.
Q An argument is also made that Minnesota should be proactive to conserve walleyes for the future. Cited as threats to walleyes are increased angling pressure and better boats and electronics.
A A change would be proactive if an overharvest was expected in the future. But overharvest by anglers has not been an issue and there is little evidence suggesting an impending problem. As to fishing pressure, boats and electronics, I don't think boats or electronics are fundamentally all that different from 20 years ago. The biggest angling changes happened from the 1960s to 1980s. To me, the "proactive'' rationale in support of a change is illogical.
Q So, the future of walleyes looks good?
A Not necessarily. Two issues are negatively impacting walleyes now and will in the future: a changing climate and continual habitat loss. Creel limit reductions likely won't address these issues. But agency and legislative action commensurate with the seriousness of these large and growing threats could.
Q How is climate change affecting walleyes?
A It's shaking up fish communities. In walleye waters across the Midwest, smallmouth bass are increasing. Bass and walleye are competitors, and some walleye fisheries have likely been impacted and others could be. Changing the walleye limit or increasing walleye stocking won't solve this problem. What could are large-scale reductions in air pollution emissions.
Meanwhile, to be proactive on walleye habitat loss, we'll need to make greater investments to protect working forests and sensitive riparian areas and lakeshores in the north.
Q What's the upshot on the limit reduction proposal?
A Advocates say it will conserve walleyes. There's no evidence to support that. Offering the proposal based on social acceptance reasons, however, is consistent with how some similar proposals have been presented in the past. But advocates should be clear there is no biological need to change the walleye limit.
Perhaps a consensus will emerge in the Legislature that the state's walleye limit should be revised based on social factors, including public opinion. Conversely, perhaps the Legislature will decide that, absent a biological justification, no change is needed.
Most important might be that policymakers and legislators recognize the incredible value of our walleye fisheries, and that to protect them and other fish and wildlife for future generations, we should work aggressively to protect diverse, working forests and sensitive riparian areas and lakeshores in the north.