An end to fish favoritism?

For years, there have been winners and losers in the Minnesota fish family. Popular species such as trout and walleye are closely monitored, bred in state-funded hatcheries, and protected with strict regulations on seasons and catch limits. Other fish, including redhorse, bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo, sheepshead, bowfin, gar, goldeye, and bullheads, have been classified as “rough fish” with little to no conservation measures in place to protect them from extirpation or extinction. Tyler Winter, director of the nonprofit Native Fish for Tomorrow, hopes that Minnesota’s fish favoritism may finally be coming to an end.

“The St. Croix is a hotspot of fish diversity. The fact some species of “rough” fish are missing above Taylor’s Falls, despite the exceptional water quality, highlights the real threats facing these fish,” Winter says. “They obviously are not inexhaustible, since they have been extirpated from the upper river and many inland streams. The same can be said below Taylor’s Falls. Yes, the lower St. Croix is home to many species of threatened fish. But, why are they threatened?”

This spring, Minnesota lawmakers consider new legislation, known as the “No Junk Fish” bill, which is supported by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Izaak Walton League, Native Fish for Tomorrow, and numerous other conservation organizations. The proposal, which has passed both the Senate and House Environmental committees, would provide funding for the DNR to study native fish species that are currently classified as rough fish and propose updated regulations to better manage and protect their populations.

Photo posted to MPR News. A longnose gar, a freshwater fish native to North America. The fish will, for the first time ever in Minnesota, be protected in ways similar to other gamefish. Photo courtesy of Solomon David.

Similar new legislation, passed in 2021, went into effect this week and sets a 10-fish possession limit for longnose and shortnose gar. The DNR also reclassified burbot, whitefish, and cisco as game fish, meaning they’re now subject to fishing seasons and catch limits.

“One thing I like to emphasize is that native rough fish play a critical ecological role in supporting clean water and charismatic animals like eagles and otters,” Winter explains. “Right now, eagles are sitting on eggs in their nests that will hatch when the suckers spawn. Eagles aren’t eating minnows or walleye. They eat suckers.”

In further proof that everything in nature is connected, some species of rough fish also act as larval hosts for threatened and endangered mussels populations. For example, the federally endangered spectaclecase mussel lives in the St. Croix River and requires goldeye and mooneye to reproduce. Because these fish no longer live north of the St. Croix Falls dam, however, the lone remaining elderly population of spectaclecase mussels that lives in the upper river is no longer able to reproduce.

Winter also notes that many fish classified as rough fish in Minnesota are listed as threatened or endangered species in Wisconsin. These include river redhorse, and greater redhorse (threatened), as well as goldeye and black redhorse (endangered). Black buffalo are listed as threatened in both states.

Goldeye. Photo from Surf Insider.

It is important to note that the proposed “No Junk Fish” bill would only create conservation protections for fish species that are native to Minnesota. Non-native invasive species, such as carp, round goby, ruffe, and white perch, cause economic and ecological damage and will remain subject to aquatic invasive species regulations, as well as control and eradication efforts.  

“You can’t scientifically apply the same regulations to invasive and native species,” Winter emphasizes. “We need to move towards scientific and sustainable management that protects ecosystem function.”