Even if lake sturgeon in Minnesota gain protected status under the Endangered Species Act, fishing for the ancient species in Minnesota has a strong chance to continue, close observers of the review process say.
State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said the Department of Natural Resources is very comfortable with existing sturgeon fishing regulations and has no interest in changing them in any way. The national review launched last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could take a year or more and new protections aren’t assured.
“All of our sturgeon data are showing positive trends,” Parsons said. “We’re very pleased with the trajectory of sturgeon in the state.”
There are only six remaining lake sturgeon populations in the United States with more than 1,000 adult fish, and one of those is Minnesota’s naturally reproducing sturgeon fishery on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River.
The DNR also has worked hard to revive sturgeon in northwestern Minnesota and in the previously improved habitat for the fish in the St. Louis River.
Minnesota has kept close tabs on the species and Parsons said the DNR provided a great deal of data to federal researchers leading up to the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to review whether “threatened” or “endangered’’ status is warranted.
In general, licensed anglers in Minnesota may catch more than one sturgeon but may only keep one per calendar year. But various waters at various times are restricted to catch-and-release or are off limits. Anglers who intend to keep a sturgeon must buy a tag and report the catch.
The state’s largest harvest occurs at Lake of the Woods/Rainy River in a season established partly as a celebration of how well sturgeon have recovered in Minnesota.
Lake sturgeon can grow past 7 feet and weigh more than 250 pounds. Nationwide, their numbers were once in the millions but have fallen drastically in the past century. Overfishing was a historic reason for the decline, but Fish and Wildlife cites pollution, dams, dredging, habitat fragmentation and invasive species as main factors for possible protection.
The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Arizona, requested the status review for sturgeon. Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the nonprofit, said a “threatened” rather than “endangered” listing would give Fish and Wildlife the latitude to authorize “take” of sturgeon. States could argue for continued harvest and catch-and-release if they could show that their fishing seasons were consistent with recovery of the species.
“Catch-and-release fishing will not be a high priority for federal regulation, especially since most states ... try to make sure levels are sustainable,” Miller said.