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Sport fishing

Mon, May 22nd, 2000
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May 1, 2000

For most people few outdoor activities seem more ecologically benign than good old-fashioned recreational fishing. While the baited hooks, trolled lures and slowly drifting flies of lazy days spent angling certainly do appear relatively innocuous, appearances are deceiving as fishing can and often does create environmental havoc despite the sports widespread "ecologically friendly" reputation.

Among the more obvious environmental impacts of sport fishing is the tremendous pressure thousands, perhaps even millions of recreational anglers place on the fish most actively pursued. Viewed from a purely zoological standpoint each and every fisherman, whether using bait, fly or lure, in effect simply functions as another predatory species. Unlike virtually all natural predators, however, recreational anglers cumulatively "consume prey" at a rate far beyond the natural reproductive capabilities of many popular game fish species.

In response to the depletion of naturally occurring stocks, wildlife management agencies throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world have long resorted to the practice of artificially breeding, raising and releasing a wide assortment of game fish species including walleye, bass, pike, salmon and trout. While again appearing reasonable at least at first glance, fish stocking programs remain problematic and sometimes further damage regional ecosystems.

For example, at least one recent study indicates that here in southeast Minnesota as many as 80 percent of the "stocked" fish are caught within the first two weeks following their release. As a consequence of this endless cycle of "put and take," our local fish stocking programs are fairly labor intensive, time consuming, and certainly costly management strategies.

In addition to economic considerations, wildlife management agencies have likewise also deemed it "wise" to introduce non-native fish into a wide variety of waterways. Such is certainly true of southeastern Minnesota's rivers and streams where neither of our two most popular game fish, the Brown and Rainbow Trout, are actually native to the region. Further complicating the issue, these tax funded government agencies occasionally attempt to establish populations of the invertebrate food organisms of these fish species as well.

While quick to defend these actions with vague assurances "that nothing was there to begin with," the fisheries divisions of government wildlife agencies have thus far provided little unbiased, scientific data on the potential ecological impacts of introduced non-native fish and invertebrates. Although currently impossible to know exactly what effect the purposeful introduction of non-native species has had on Minnesota's aquatic ecosystems, similar projects in other regions have sometimes had disastrous results.

The ill-conceived introduction of the Nile Perch to Africa's Lake Victoria serves as an excellent example of just how drastically wrong even the most well intentioned fish stocking program may actually turn out to be. As so poignantly explained in Tijs Goldschmidt's exceptional book, Darwin's Dreampond, the highly predacious Nile Perch has literally decimated populations of virtually all of Lake Victoria's native species. This environmental debacle is made all the more distressing by the fact that the freshwater fish fauna of Lake Victoria has long been regarded as one of the most unique, spectacular and ecologically diverse to be found anywhere on earth.

Although much more easily overlooked, species widely sold as bait also harbor significant potential for causing serious environmental harm. Many bait species including various minnows, larval amphibians, frogs and crayfish have now established populations in regions where they did not formerly naturally occur. Bad ones like the Rusty Red Crayfish and Bullfrogs simply gobble-up new neighbors, typically beginning with the most closely related native species. On occasion bait species have also been implicated in the spread of infectious wildlife disease. Imported bait frogs for instance are strongly suspected of unleashing a fatal bacterial plague, which severely damaged Minnesota frog populations in the early 1990s.

Massive tangles of monofilament line and other discarded fishing paraphernalia, however, should be readily apparent to anyone. Nevertheless, by mid summer enough Rapalas, Shadrads, and other assorted lures, not to mention hooks, sinkers, and even fishing line to stock a small tackle box will litter the banks of the Root River alone. Laden with lures dangling from streamers of line, the branches of bushes and trees surrounding popular fishing holes are poised and set to snag the unwary from above. Below, in the snags, sand and silt of the bottom, lurk rusting barbed hooks and other unsavory surprises.

Make no mistake; for animals such snags can be death traps. As a frequent wetland wanderer, far too often have I seen the desiccated remains of waterfowl, songbirds, even hawks, legs hopelessly entangled in a snarl of fishing line if not more mercifully hung by the neck until dead. Similar underwater hazards drown aquatic air-breathers such as turtles, beaver and otter. Terrestrial animals, include those deer-sized and larger, are likewise severely injured, permanently maimed, or even sometimes killed by “lost” tackle.

Among the more bizarre experiences of my wetland journeys, has been the discovery of a number of dead bats cleanly hooked through the lip on trout fly. These lightweight lures, blown by the wind while suspend from a tether of string, apparently fooling the animals into taking the “bait” during their nocturnal pursuit of low flying insects. I do have one question, however. Now that we know how to catch bats, just how do we cook ‘em?

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