St. Paul — A new legislative report to address statewide seasonal live-bait shortages recently was released by the Minnesota DNR, the recommendations of which the agency hopes will help mitigate the multifaceted problem going forward.
The 2023 Minnesota Legislature directed the state DNR to submit the recommendations “to ensure a viable Minnesota-grown bait supply” as shortages have become more commonplace in recent years. The lack of various minnows and leeches has frustrated bait shop owners and anglers alike, with many calling out the DNR for its lack of communication on the issue with commercial bait suppliers.
“It’s a start; at least we’re talking now,” said Bill Powell, owner of Fred’s Live Bait & Tackle in Deer River who harvests and sells minnows. “We’ll see if the recommendations improve our ability to source what we need.”
Powell is one of several state minnow dealers who sat on an advisory committee and helped the DNR craft the report’s recommendations. State officials say live bait is critically important to Minnesota’s annual $4 billion recreational angling economy.
According to the report, the bait industry “retails approximately $1.6 million worth of minnows annually in Minnesota.” Meanwhile, roughly 70% of state anglers report using live minnows.
Sean Sisler, Minnesota DNR commercial aquatic programs and fish health consultant, said the state’s bait is “wild-caught,” and supplies vary annually. Supply, he said, can be affected by several things, including winterkill, drought, floods, and access to minnow-production areas.
“These factors have been exacerbated by land-use practices and bait-harvest restrictions aimed at preventing spread of fish disease and invasive species,” according the report’s executive summary. “Increasing bait demand, especially due to an increase in winter angling, has caused some seasonal bait shortages.”
To better understand the problem, the DNR hosted three meetings – the first in October 2022 – with bait producers, harvesters, retailers, as well as other fish advocacy groups.
“The recommendations came directly from those meetings,” Sisler said.
The report lays out several recommendations (see below) and their rationale, as well as actions already taken and next steps. The full 24-page report can be found here.
• Explore opportunities to use artificial ponds and other minnow-rearing techniques to supplement wild harvest.
According to the report, natural waterways are producing fewer minnows because of watershed changes, development, and weather conditions. The DNR currently is working on a project with Sea Grant and the minnow industry on raising golden shiners in constructed ponds. The initial results have been “promising.” As a result, golden shiner fry are available for those interested in stocking ponds.
• Continue watershed-based VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) testing to maintain VHS-free zones to facilitate minnow harvest.
VHS is a fish virus. According to the report, VHS testing was identified as a “barrier” to harvesting VHS-susceptible species such as spottail shiners, emerald shiners, and fathead minnows. Without such zones, harvesters would be required to test bait for VHS for each water body.
The DNR updated its minnow-testing requirements by establishing VHS-free zones in 2022.
More waters are now available to “harvest for VHS-susceptible species without the need for further testing.”
• Increasing availability of white sucker eggs to licensed producers.
According to the report, the 2022 harvest was impacted by spring flooding. The DNR notified sucker producers in 2023 that surplus suckers were available … and provided surplus sucker eggs to licensed aquacultrists. Such notifications will continue when surplus sucker eggs are available.
• Maximize minnow harvest while maintaining minimal zebra mussel transfer risk.
According to the report, harvest restrictions on infested waters have been identified as barriers that limit bait availability.
The DNR and bait harvesters are collaborating on a pilot project “designed to access the use of traps in zebra mussel-infested waters.”
At the request of minnow harvesters and dealers, the DNR in 2023 expanded the program to include nine lakes. The DNR will “evaluate pilot project data” to determine its next steps.
• Consider expanding the types of gear or gear configurations to increase harvest efficiency and harvest in waters where current gear is ineffective. The DNR will consult with minnow harvesters on this issue.
• Facilitate minnow-harvest access to areas that may have been previously restricted or underutilized, such as trout waters, wildlife management areas, or other units of the Outdoor Recreation Act.
In 2023, the DNR encouraged harvesters to approach their local DNR fisheries and wildlife offices to “identify opportunities for harvest …”
• Remove “non-target species” from minnow ponds by using piscicides and temporary drawdowns.
The DNR will provide information to bait harvesters on permitting options with piscicides.
Research is needed to “explore additional methods to maintain minnow ponds.”
• Research factors related to leech harvest decline.
• Establish and maintain regular communication between the DNR and minnow harvesters and dealers. One action is to establish an ongoing working group with the DNR and minnow harvesters, retailers, and other minnow suppliers that would “meet on a regular basis to increase communication and collaboration.”
The DNR will work with minnow harvesters to identify water bodies they’re using for harvesting minnows and avoid these waters for other purposes. The agency also will notify minnow harvesters when new waters are being considered to raise walleye fingerlings and when walleye pond use is discontinued.
“Our role was to get the DNR and the bait industry talking and that’s what we did,” said Ron Schara, president of MN-FISH, a state fishing advocacy group representing anglers, local organizations, and industry stakeholders. “You can’t solve the problem without the parties involved speaking to each other.”
Many live-bait retailers and suppliers contacted by Outdoor News are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new recommendations to address live-bait shortages.
“Will they help?” said Jeff Byrne, longtime owner of Cabin Fever Sporting Goods in Victoria. “Only time will tell.”