The "No Junk Fish Bill" carried this year in the Minnesota House by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn would have required the Department of Natural Resources to evaluate rough fish designations and whether any nongame species need protection or management.
The bill included a $250,000 appropriation and a deadline of next summer for a written report to the Legislature.
To the dismay of admirers of dogfish (bowfin), bigmouth buffalo, northern hogsuckers, redhorse suckers, and other native fish, the bill failed. Still, there's new life in their movement to grow respect for non-invasive fish with downturned mouths, oversized scales and elongated dorsal fins. Consider the following:
- State fisheries chief Brad Parsons said this week the DNR is on the brink of announcing its first-ever bag limit for eelpout, or burbot. It's a long-awaited followup to the landmark reclassification of eelpout from rough fish to game fish in 2021.
- Fisheries personnel are in the midst of setting possession limits for longnose gar and shortnose gar, rough fish that gained attention last year at the Legislature. A widely circulated YouTube video showed 82 of them laying dead across the ice on the Minnesota River. They had been speared by a group of fishermen who were killing them for fun. The individuals weren't ticketed for wanton waste because enforcement agents determined the fish were not discarded, but used in some fashion, like fertilizer. With some exceptions, it's currently OK to take gar and other rough fish in unlimited numbers or high numbers any time of year if they are used in some fashion.
- The grassroots group that embraced the "No Junk Fish Bill'' is getting more organized. They recently formed a 501(c)(3) advocacy group called Native Fish for Tomorrow. Tyler Winter, an environmental scientist in the Twin Cities who champions Minnesota's 26 species of native nongame fish, said the group will work to change public perceptions.
"The (DNR's) list of rough fish is arbitrary and has no biological justification,'' Winter said. "We want people to take a fresh look at these fish.''
One culturally embedded misconception is that the DNR wants people to kill native rough fish because many are listed as having no possession limit and perceived as having no value. Worse, some people conflate native rough fish with common carp, an invasive species targeted by DNR for mass removal for ruining critical habitat in lakes and rivers.
"The DNR needs to create limits for these fish so people can see them as a benefit, not a detriment,'' Winter said.
The redhorse sucker fish, for example, is a vital food source for game fish. In the St. Croix River basin, Wisconsin officials list the river redhorse as a threatened species. Yet in Minnesota, redhorse is only a "rough fish.''
Buffalo fish eat unwanted algae. Gar and bowfin are among the few fish that eat carp. Eelpout, when properly prepared, makes good table fare.
DNR didn't take a position on the "No Junk Fish Bill.'' Parsons said the agency agrees with the concept that Minnesota's native fishes are all important, but many of the species haven't been studied in adequate detail, including spawning practices.
"When you are trying to manage a species and you don't have information ... it almost becomes more sociology than biology,'' the fisheries chief said.
Parsons wants to make more progress on the issue and he sides with rough fish advocates in their attempts to change public attitudes. Last year, the DNR pictured a redhorse on the cover of its 2022 fishing regulations booklet. The agency also told anglers via social media: "Don't kill and dump rough fish.''
Minnesota is probably ahead of other states in forming knowledge about its native fish, Parsons said, but clearly there is more work to do.
Becker-Finn said this week she'll consider reviving her bill — possibly with more teeth in it —if things aren't "rolling'' inside the DNR to pay more attention toward more native fish. Her attempt to prod the agency into action has drawn support from groups like the Izaak Walton League, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and Minnesota Conservation Federation, she said.
"It's sort of common sense for a lot of people,'' said Becker-Finn, D-Roseville. "The average member of the public is put off by the idea that you can be killing a bunch of fish for fun.''
Maxfield JonasKrueger of Madison, Wis., is an active participant in Twin Cities-based www.roughfish.com. Last month, he won the website's annual multispecies fishing tournament by catching 78 different kinds of fish from waters in several states.
Known on the website as "Fishnerd,'' his three favorite targets are bowfin, buffalo and gar and his biggest catch in this year's contest was a 30-inch, 12-pound black buffalo caught on the St. Francis River in Missouri. JonasKrueger said Minnesota isn't alone in putting more resources into management of native rough fish. He's seeing progress in other states, too.
"People are getting more interested in catching less traditionally sought species,'' he said.