Ohio DNR clarifies fish fillet rule

Columbus — The DNR Division of Wildlife has issued a statewide directive to its enforcement officers to clarify guidelines for enforcing a new rule that specifies the condition of fish fillets being kept or transported.

“Many Ohio anglers have expressed that they were confused about the fillet rule so I asked our Division of Wildlife to clarify the rule so no innocent angler stands a chance of getting into trouble when they are trying to follow the law,” said DNR Director James Zehringer.

The rule, Ohio Administrative Code 1501:31-13-08, states that it is unlawful to possess or transport a fish unless the fish is in the round or a complete fillet with skin attached until a person reaches their permanent residence. The confusion surrounding the question of whether the skin had to be kept on the entire fillet or whether a patch of skin to identify the fish species would suffice. Many Lake Erie anglers come to the lake for a few days or a week to sample the world-class fishery, and anglers may be bringing home several days’ limits of the various species.

The rule is effective statewide, though the target area is Lake Erie.

After a thorough review, a directive sent to wildlife officers from Scott Zody, chief of the Division of Wildlife, specified that the rule should be interpreted to mean that only a patch of skin, enough to identify the species of the fish, is required to be left on the fillet. Changes will be made this fall during the regular rule-making package to further clarify the requirement in code. The rule is designed as a tool to protect the valuable Lake Erie fishing resource and to allow wildlife officers to identify fillets in an angler’s possession.

“Our goal was to protect the state’s most valuable fishery,” said Zody. “It was not our intent to create a hardship for anglers, who bring a tremendous economic benefit to the state.

“This was done as a concern for overbagging and anglers who were taking too many fish,” said Zody. “In some cases, anglers were removing the skin and chunking them up, making it very difficult for our officers to determine whether or not there was an overbag situation.”

Zody said much feedback over the new rule in the past several weeks led the Division of Wildlife to make the change.

“Looking at the way the rule was written, we felt that we could interpret the wording in the existing rule so that rather than requiring the whole skin on the fillet, a patch of skin, or at least enough so our officers can identify what species of fish the fillet belonged to,” he said.

The rule has only been applied five or six times so far, said Ken Fitz, law enforcement administrator for the Division of Wildlife.

“And, in all of those situations there was an overbag,” Fitz said.

“As long as we can identify the species of fish, we’ll be OK,” said Fitz. “We need to look at the intent of the rule and the intent of the rule is to prevent overbags.”

The rule is specific in that it requires anglers to leave a patch of skin on the fillet until that angler reaches his or her permanent residence. There is one exception, however.

“We want you to have that patch of skin on there unless you are preparing it for immediate consumption,”said Fitz. “Once you get home, though, you can take that skin off.”

All of this is in line with protecting the fishery from overharvest, said Fitz.

“We do have a good fishery here,” he said. “We have an obligation to protect that while also working with our constituents.”

New fishing rules are typically highlighted in red ink in the fishing regulations’ annual pamphlet. This rule, however, was not.

“We just pretty much dropped the ball on that,” said Vicki Mountz, the Division of Wildlife’s administrator for information and education. “I don’t think it was recognized as a brand new issue, so even though it was new in last season’s regulations we just missed it.”

Mountz said the regulation was not intended to punish anglers who obey the law.

“We love fishermen,” she said. “They’re the people who support us so we want to do things as fair as we can for both the angler and the resource.”

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