A fisheries research project that aims to foster bigger bluegills by reducing the harvest in certain lakes is receiving strong public support, officials from the Department of Natural Resources said Friday.

Jeff Reed, the research scientist who heads the agency's Quality Sunfish Initiative, told a group of colleagues, anglers, resort owners and other stakeholders that 100 Minnesota lakes are now going through the rule-making process to lower sunfish bag limits from 20 to 10 or even to five fish. Overall, the researchers want to expand the number of special sunfish lakes in Minnesota from about 60 to as many as 250 lakes by 2023.

Not all panfish waters are considered good candidates. Considerations include habitat variables and other fish communities. But the core belief is that a lighter harvest of sunfish on certain lakes will improve the size structure of their population.

Launched in 2019, the project gathered public input last year by means that included virtual town hall meetings. Of more than 3,000 people who responded, 86% to 87% expressed support for reduced sunfish bag limits on the premise that the quality of bluegill fishing should improve, Reed said.

By comparison, he said, only 25% of public commenters supported lowering the sunfish bag limit from 30 to 20 when that successful statewide reduction was floated decades ago.

Reed and Scott Mackenthun, DNR fisheries supervisor in Hutchinson, presented the Quality Sunfish Initiative via computer to an invited audience of online attendees at the annual DNR Roundtable. They said concerns about increased fishing pressure on bluegills, crappies and yellow perch are supported by research showing that panfish anglers are the quickest to incorporate new technology to find and catch fish.

"More so than pike and walleye anglers,'' Reed said.

He and Mackenthun advised audience members to contact a DNR fisheries office if they have a lake to suggest for the project. Public support for a lower bluegill bag limit on a lake is an important consideration, they said.

In other fisheries news at the Roundtable, department chief Brad Parsons said the agency is working to strengthen the supply of live bait in Minnesota. At the Legislature this year, Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, is pushing her colleagues for law changes that will strengthen Minnesota's bait industry or allow the importation of minnows from suppliers in other states.

Parsons said restrictions in place on bait rearing and harvesting — as well as the ban on minnow importation — are designed to protect state waters against the inadvertent spread of fish diseases and aquatic invasive species. He didn't elaborate, but he said the DNR is looking at new approaches and that he's optimistic some moves can be made to provide a steady, healthy supply of live bait.

"We want a robust bait industry," he said.

Parsons said plans also are in the works for a new attack against invasive carp in cooperation with federal agencies and the state of Wisconsin. The group is working on a new fish removal technique on the Mississippi River that should come to light in March. The joint effort was inspired by the recent incidental catch of 30 silver carp by a commercial fisherman on the river near La Crosse.

Parsons also indicated that the DNR is behind a movement at the Legislature to lower the statewide walleye bag limit from six to four. He said many of the state's best walleye lakes already incorporate the smaller limit by special regulation. Four walleyes has been the bag limit in Ontario for some time, he added.

Minnesota's six-walleye bag limit was adopted in 1956.