Gill net bans on big river to protect sturgeon, paddlefish

Lake City, Minn. — The situation the occurred last summer, when about 50 large lake sturgeon and paddlefish turned up dead on Lake Pepin because of what was believed to be misplaced commercial fishing nets, shouldn’t happen again, officials say.

Commercial fishing with gill nets temporarily was shut down then, reopened, and again temporarily and indefinitely closed this year, and both the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs are moving toward shutting down that type of fishing there permanently.

“After that incident, we got on the same page pretty fast,” said Kevin Stauffer, the Minnesota DNR’s Lake City area fisheries supervisor. “It’s now just a matter of us going through our separate processes for getting this permanent rule into place.”

Minnesota commercial fisherman Tim Adams, of Wabasha, said it angered him last year when the fish turned up dead. The fish had marks on them that indicated they had been killed in gill nets.

“I was pissed at the fishermen, extremely mad,” said Adams, who is featured on the Outdoor Channel’s “Bottom Feeders” TV show. “Totally avoidable.”

There were no repercussions against any commercial fishermen because it wasn’t illegal to be fishing with gill nets there at the time. But no one came forward, admitting the mistake. There are only about six commercial anglers known to fish that stretch of water.

Now both states appear to be moving ahead to permanently ban the use of gill nets on Lake Pepin, although commercial crews would still be able to use seine nets, which don’t present the same risks.

Most, if not all, of the commercial anglers there are supportive of banning gill nets for Pepin.

“That doesn’t bother me personally,” said Adams, one of only a handful of commercial fishermen who regularly fish that section of the river. “I think it’s a good thing.”

According to Wisconsin Outdoor News, that state’s Natural Resources Board approved a scope statement at its June meeting allowing the DNR to begin drafting regulations affecting commercial fishing on the Mississippi River, including a closure of gill-netting on Pepin.

The Wisconsin DNR hopes to clarify reporting requirements for commercial anglers who do accidentally catch threatened fish or species of concern.

Gill nets would continue to be allowed at Catharine Pass on the Wisconsin side and Wacouta Bay on the Minnesota side, where shallow water is unlikely to stack up paddlefish and lake sturgeon.

The Minnesota DNR’s efforts are in the early stages, and are currently on hold because of a departure at the agency. DNR representatives had met with commercial anglers in February to go over several potential proposals with them, and ultimately the permanent ban on gill-netting on Lake Pepin would be included as part of a larger rule package, said Neil Vanderbosch, the Minnesota DNR’s fisheries program consultant, who stressed that everything currently is on hold.

The larger package of proposals met a mixed reception among the commercial anglers.

Jeff Riedemann, of Cambridge, also featured on “Bottom Feeders,” is president of the Minnesota Inland Commercial Fisherman’s Association.

“Half of them are really well thought out and we would agree with them, and there are half that would put us right out of business,” he said. “Whoever thought some of those up has no idea what is going on in the river.”

Among the proposals is a move that would establish commercial fishing zones along the river, which would each be assigned to a limited number of anglers. This mirrors the structure of inland commercial fishing rules.

Riedemann’s concern with that is that the areas might end up being too small.

“There’s going to be too many fishermen for too few rough fish,” he said.

He and Adams had other concerns regarding the DNR’s stated level of certain rough fish, and said limiting the number of certain rough fish could put commercial anglers out of business.

“They were talking about putting some quotas on buffalo, and I think some of that is a bit ridiculous,” Adams said. “It was just talk, but the quotas they had, a guy wouldn’t make enough money to survive on. … And nobody has any idea what the population of buffalo is, so the quotas were totally unjustified.

Vanderbosch stressed that everything is on hold at the moment and noted that some of the changes would require legislative action, since some of the rules concern state statute.

“We did float that,” Vanderbosch said, in reference to the quotas. “Nothing is written in stone. We have very little information on the fish species in the river. There is no rule written down right now. It was a give-and-take session, and was something for them to react to more than anything else. We wanted to start the conversation. … We would have to justify such a rule. We are learning about buffalo. You want to protect those species because they are a competitor against invasive carp. You want to protect against overfishing it.”

Vandersbosch said Wisconsin’s move to change its rules came out of the blue, and will be discussed when fisheries managers from both states meet in the fall.

“The gill-netting thing really got us talking with them a lot more,” he said.

And Adams is supportive of the ban on gill nets on Lake Pepin.

“If you don’t have the knowledge and experience, (those fish kills) are going to happen,” he said.

Riedemann echoed Adams’ statement that last year’s fish kill could have been avoided if the DNR had better communicated with his organization.

“We would have told them we don’t recommend overnight sets,” Riedemann said. “We don’t recommend them over the weekends.”

He said Adams had been keeping the issue under control until another buyer came in and began setting on the weekends and overnight.

“There’s no carp left in the lake anyways, and that’s what was in demand,” Riedemann said. “People that didn’t know or didn’t care got into a place where they shouldn’t have. It would have never happened if (DNR) should have listened to our recommendations.”

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