The proposed walleye bag-limit reduction: what you should know
By Gary Barnard
Unless you’re tracking bills in the Minnesota Legislature, you may not be aware of legislation in both the Senate (S.F. 12) and House (H.F. 100) that would direct the Minnesota DNR commissioner to reduce the statewide walleye bag limit from six fish to four fish.
This regulation proposal was not initiated by the DNR’s Section of Fisheries. One would think that the agency that has management responsibility for walleyes and does all of the lake surveys, assessments, and fisheries research would also be responsible for determining necessary regulation changes.
The fact that this was not a DNR Fisheries initiative is the first of a series of red flags for this legislative proposal.
The DNR is officially supporting this regulation change and testified in support of the Senate version of the bill. Despite DNR Fisheries’ support for the bill, a search of recent DNR news releases and the DNR website shows no hint of a potential walleye bag-limit reduction.
Regardless of where this proposal originated, DNR Fisheries has an obligation to inform anglers of a potential statewide rule change for Minnesota’s most popular game fish. Ideally, it would also provide some biological need or rationale for the change and explain how the benefits of this regulation change might offset the loss of harvest opportunity.
During testimony, DNR Fisheries did not provide any biological information showing the need for this limit reduction, or how it would benefit Minnesota anglers. The reason that no biological data have been presented to support a statewide four-fish walleye limit is because it simply does not exist. This is not for lack of sampling effort.
Minnesota fish managers have one of the most robust lake survey programs anywhere (funded by your license dollars). Hundreds of individual lake surveys are conducted each year, and the 10 largest walleye lakes are sampled annually. If there were concerning trends in any key biological indicators (abundance, size, growth, maturity, spawning stock biomass, etc.) that suggest overharvest, they would be apparent.
Unfortunately, the focus on harvest management and the need to lower bag limits on some of Minnesota’s most prominent destination walleye fisheries has given the false impression that walleye harvest is bad, and anything we can do to reduce it might help. That is certainly not the case on most Minnesota lakes, and there are plenty of instances in which walleye harvest can be beneficial to a healthy population and a sustainable sport fishery.
Obviously, overharvest of spawning stock in natural reproduction lakes could lead to problems. However, numerous evaluations of spawning stock and wild fry production during the past couple of decades have shown that wild fry density does not need to be as high as previously thought, and surplus fry production beyond what is needed is not beneficial to the fish population. Fortunately, fisheries managers don’t have to guess at spawning stock or wild fry production because they now have the tools to directly measure them.
When spawning stock does need more protection on certain lakes, bag-limit reduction is not the regulation of choice. Slot limits have proven to be far more effective because they target the protection precisely where it is needed. In lakes where spawning stock is in surplus, harvest can be an important management tool to remove the surplus, reduce suppression effects, and improve survival of young walleyes.
The future of walleye fishing in these systems depends on frequent recruitment of new year-classes.
No doubt there are a number of underperforming walleye lakes across Minnesota, but few, if any, of those can blame their woes on overharvest. The most common problem in maintaining good walleye fisheries is poor or inconsistent recruitment of new, young fish into the population. Minnesota spends a large portion of its Fisheries budget (again, your license dollars) on stocking programs (either fry or fingerlings) to supplement recruitment of young walleyes. In some lakes, stocking works very well, while in other lakes it is less suitable.
Some of Minnesota’s better fry-stocked lakes rival the natural reproduction lakes for angler catch and harvest rates. When there is no need to maintain a certain level of spawning stock (because fry are stocked), these lakes can sustain substantial annual harvest. This ultimately results in more consistent stocking success by freeing up productivity and reducing suppression effects from larger, older walleyes.
Fingerling stocking is the most aggressive and most expensive form of walleye management. Results often are disappointing because this method attempts to force walleyes into lake types that are not suitable for natural reproduction or stocked fry survival. Where fingerling stocking does provide decent walleye fisheries, seldom are catch rates high enough for a lower bag limit to actually reduce harvest.
Further, because the critique of this program is the expense and low return to the angler, reducing harvest on fingerling stocked lakes only increases the cost of each fish returned to the angler.
Given the amount of the DNR Fisheries budget spent evaluating our walleye populations and the significant advancements gained in understanding how these populations function, it would be a shame to ignore an abundance of sound fisheries data and lower the statewide walleye bag limit based entirely on social reasons, as some are suggesting.
Because this initiative is not going through the normal DNR rulemaking process, there is no requirement to seek public comment. Minnesota walleye anglers’ only option to provide input on this pending legislation is to contact their state senators and representatives directly.
Barnard is a retired DNR area fisheries supervisor from Bemidji.