Illegal Fish Stocking

June 13, 2012 by  

Doug Leier

Even with gas prices hovering between three and four dollars a gallon, I see trucks towing boats moving across North Dakota on a regular basis.

While at one time this flow of boats was heavily weighted toward vehicles from North Dakota heading primarily east, over the last decade or more things have evened out. It’s not so much that fewer boats are heading into Minnesota, but that more visitors from other states are crossing the border to experience fishing on the Missouri River System, Devils Lake, Red River and dozens of productive prairie lakes that have popped onto the map in the last 20 years.

As I wrote last week, North Dakota’s current peak on the fishing curve is due primarily to a prolonged wet cycle, coupled with a strategic and aggressive stocking program by State Game and Fish Department biologists to get fish into new waters that previously were not deep enough to support a long-term fishery.

This methodical approach to fish introduction is heavy on science and light on emotion. Which is why strict regulations apply to transporting or stocking of fish outside the Game and Fish Department’s plan.

If not conducted by resource professionals, introduction of fish into new waters can often cause irreparable harm. For example, live white suckers were once legal bait in most North Dakota waters.

Although purposeful stocking of suckers and other fish was illegal at that time, anglers unknowingly emptied bait buckets containing suckers into the water at day’s end. Through that practice, suckers were introduced into many existing fish populations in the state. Suckers eat aquatic invertebrates used by desirable species, and once they grow beyond the size at which they are a useful forage for large predator fish, they compromise the quality of a fishery.

As a result, the Game and Fish Department spent a lot of money and time, especially in the early 1990s, eliminating suckers, as well as the desirable fish, from a number of waters in an effort to start over.

Those lake renovations, however, would not have lasted without changes to statewide bait regulations. About 20 years ago, Game and Fish made white suckers illegal bait in all North Dakota waters, except the Red River. This change has dramatically reduced introduction of white suckers into waters where they’re not wanted.

While dozens of lakes 20-25 years ago had white sucker populations that caused management problems, in 2011 only one of about 70 fisheries sampled had troublesome sucker numbers.

It’s that kind of success with regulation that Game and Fish and the state’s anglers are trying to accomplish today with the new rules designed to prevent the spread of recently discovered aquatic nuisance species like zebra mussels and silver carp.

We can try to eliminate ANS when one is discovered, but it’s those regulations directed at unknowing or inadvertent introduction that keep problem species in check.

No doubt some anglers thought it was an inconvenience that they could no longer use white suckers for bait to pursue big pike and walleye. However, the long-term benefit to fishing waters statewide is unmistakable.

We have a good thing going in North Dakota right now and we all can help keep it that way by remembering the long-standing rules about fish transport and illegal stocking, as well as embracing the new aquatic nuisance species provisions.


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