In Wisconsin, camera use by sturgeon spearers stirs up controversy on Winnebago

Oshkosh, Wis. — Talk about underwater camera use to target sturgeon during times of low water clarity may lead to sportsmen offering resolutions at the April 9 spring hearings to either ban camera use, limit the width of spear heads, or both.

Conservation Congress Chairman Larry Bonde, of Kiel, said he has been fielding a ton of calls from sturgeon spearers on both sides of the issue. Bonde said the Conservation Congress would not be acting on the topic at this year’s spring hearings, but he said sportsmen would be welcome to submit their ideas for rule changes through the spring hearing resolution process.

“The DNR is saying it’s not a biological issue. There are harvest quotas in place to protect the fish and those quotas are working well,” said Bonde.

“I don’t know of anyone who speared a sturgeon with the aide of camera, but then I hear that game wardens saw one guy with four cameras down and a 40-inch TV screen in his shanty.”

Bonde said this type of chatter started a little bit last year, but the rhetoric climbed during this year’s sturgeon season.

“It’s going crazy. Ryan (Koenig, DNR sturgeon biologist) had 30 emails prior to the season,” said Bonde.

Koenig has been working for the DNR since 2008, but he started as the sturgeon biologist as 2013, following longtime sturgeon biologist Ron Bruch.

“The issue became a topic of discussion after the 2013 season.Technology has advanced since then, but heard concerns in 2013, which was a dirty-water year,”said Koenig. “Then 2014, and 2015 were relatively clear water years – camera use is more of a concern during dirty-water years. If they can see 12 to 14 feet down, they are less likely to use an underwater camera. The next three years – 2016, 2017, and 2018 – there has been progressively more conversation for and against camera use.

“Depending upon who you talk to, there are all different levels they are taking technology to. Some have elaborate set-ups to know where to throw,” said Koenigs.

The “throwing” is another sticking point. It’s been said that some guys are using spearheads 24 to 30 inches wide.

“Mine is 12 inches wide,” said Bonde. “The thing is, there is no upper limit on spear width in the regulations.”

“I’m not out there checking spear width,” said Koenigs. “I’ve heard rumors, but I can’t verify what people are using for equipment. There is no definition of a sturgeon spear in place – no maximum head width or handle length.

“There are two sides to this story. Not everyone is on the same page. Some see using technology as unethical. How do you tell size of fish? Wounding rates – that’s from the ‘against’ side who say you shouldn’t spear what you can’t see.”

“Pro” camera spearers claim cameras increase participation, gives kids something to look at, and during “dirty water” years they are not reaching the harvest cap for adult females.

“Right now, the DNR doesn’t view this as biological issue. We do have the harvest cap in place,” said Koenig.

“This is like the crossbow of the sturgeon world right now,” said Bonde.

DNR game wardens kept track of who used cameras this past season – spearers in 25 percent of the shacks surveyed had cameras down.

“We have done two surveys since 2013,” said Koenig. “We heard enough complaints then from anti-camera folks, so we sent out a mail survey to 1,000 randomly selected license holders. Contacted them up to three times to promote feedback, and got 742 responses. It was a fairly even split – 29 percent pro, 35 percent against, and 36 percent indifferent.

“In 2016 and 2017 we heard more comments, so our committee in 2017 took a vote on camera use. It was 17 against, seven for, and five indifferent.

“We did one more survey during the 2018 opening weekend. We asked wardens if they would monitor for camera use and ask the question. On Lake Winnebago, with 434 contacts, 30 percent of the shacks had cameras in use, 70 percent did not, and 38 percent were pro use, 27 percent were against, and 35 percent were indifferent.”

Cameras are not as much of a topic on Butte Des Morts, Poygan, or Winneconne because those lakes are shallower and usually have clearer water.

“The maximum width of spearhead – the committee will look into that. I can’t say where it’ll go,” said Koenig. “The first thing we would do is go to the sturgeon advisory committee. We haven’t talked yet. Given that I’ve heard from citizens who were offering resolutions April 9, we might meet sooner to debrief and discuss this issue.”