Public may have say in next Upper Miss fish plan

Winona, Minn. — A comprehensive plan that puts in place guidelines and goals for all things aquatic on the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is nearly set for adoption, according to federal officials.

But before the plan is deemed official, members of the public have one more chance to weigh in with thoughts about the Upper Mississippi River Fisheries Plan-2010: Conservation Through Cooperation. They may do so until Jan. 22. The document covers the entire stretch of the Upper Mississippi, and would be used as the refuge’s fisheries management plan, eliminating the need for a “refuge-only” plan.

Dan Dieterman, the Minnesota DNR’s assistant fisheries supervisor in Lake City, Minn., was part of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee that developed the plan. He said the five-goal plan is specifics-challenged, but offers what states and federal agencies believe are priorities for the fish and aquatic habitat of the Upper Miss refuge. In essence, it provides guidance and direction for fisheries managers. Not surprisingly, one of the listed items is dealing with aquatic invasive species.

“That was one of the drivers (of the plan) for sure,” Dieterman said.

Among the other goals: restoring and maintaining fish diversity in the river, restoring and maintaining aquatic habitat, providing and improving recreational and commercial fishing opportunities, informing and educating the public, and, of course, dealing with invasives.

Dieterman was one of five state officials (the others were from Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri), along with federal representatives who worked on the plan for the 900-mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi River (about 250 river miles in the refuge) for two years. The plan is directed at that portion of the river from Hastings, Minn., to Caruthersville, Mo.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to make a decision on its adoption early this year.

Tim Yager, Upper Mississippi deputy refuge manager, said Mississippi River water quality on the refuge in the past 10 years has improved, and that’s been reflected, too, in the quality of fish habitat. Still, there are a number of challenges, among them the continued filling in (siltation) of Lake Pepin.

Further, a few new species of invasive vegetation have taken hold in Pool 5. Those “decorative” plant invaders include water lettuce, parrot feather, and water hyacinth.

“We went after them aggressively last summer (by pulling the weeds, and by hiring a commercial applicator to spray them with herbicide),” Yager said. “And we plan to do more of that (this year).”

Dieterman said officials thought the plants might succumb to a Midwest winter, but they survived last year. Perhaps it was because last winter was so mild, he said, and this winter – should it be more harsh – could further test the plants’ heartiness.

The threat of invasive fish species aside, Dieterman said the native fish of the Upper Mississippi appear to be in good shape, and fishing has in recent years been excellent.

“Generally speaking, fishing has been as good as it’s been in many, many years,” he said. Good water quality has led to better plant growth and improved habitat for fish, he added. Overall, growth rates, too, have been good.

Walleye and sauger fishing hasn’t lagged, and there’s been a “resurgence” in the perch population in the past six or seven years, according to Dieterman. Largemouth and smallmouth bass numbers have grown, and northern pike are doing well, he said. Flathead and channel catfish populations are strong.

“White bass used to be popular,” Dieterman said. “But they don’t seem to be quite as plentiful,” perhaps because of the increase in the number of other fish.

The Minnesota DNR, in coordination with the Wisconsin DNR, manages the fish of the river from Hastings to the Iowa border, according to Dieterman.

The latest plan follows much the same path as a previous plan, which was implemented in 1993. According to the USFWS, the 2010 plan will function as a “stepdown” plan of the refuge’s “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” and its environmental impact statement developed for the refuge in 2006. The new plan “will continue to facilitate the cooperative approach to resource management issues within the refuge,” the USFWS says in a press release.

Just as invasive fish species have been prominent on the radar of state officials elsewhere, they’ll be a focus of the Upper Miss and refuge plan. Dieterman said invasive Asian bighead and silver carp have been found in Mississippi River waters in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the past, though there’s been no documented reproduction of the species. Twenty years ago, when the ’93 plan took effect, not as many invasive species were present, he said.

But they were addressed back then. An objective of the 1993 fish plan was to, by 2003, “document and control the introduction of exotic fish and mussels in (the Upper Mississippi).”

Today, the plan is to identify the status and distribution of aquatic nuisance species and pathogens known or suspected to be present on the Upper Miss; identify fish species or habitat at risk; support efforts to prevent the introduction and establishment of aquatic nuisance species; and implement measures to control, reduce, or eliminate them.

For more information on the plan, visit: http://www.umrcc.org/Fisheries.html

Comments or concerns about adopting the plan may be sent to: Refuge Manager, Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, 51 East 4th Street, Winona, MN 55987. Comments also may be received via email at Lisa_Liddell@fws.gov or by calling the refuge manager at (507) 452-4232.

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