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DNR plans pilot project for minnow trappers in zebra mussel-infested waters

Trapping minnows in infested waters requires dealers to complete an online training course and follow a strict regimen of procedures in order to receive a license.

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Spottail shiners are a prized bait among Minnesota walleye anglers early in the season. In North Dakota, live shiners aren't legal baitfish.
Contributed / Jonny Petrowske
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ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is planning a pilot project set to launch this spring to determine best practices for minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in lakes designated as infested waters for zebra mussels.

A popular early summer walleye bait, spottail shiners run in the spring and most commonly are found and trapped in large lakes such as Upper Red, many of which are designated as infested waters for zebra mussels. Larval zebra mussels called “veligers” were found in Upper Red in 2019, but adult mussels haven’t been found.

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Trapping minnows in infested waters requires dealers to complete an online training course and follow a strict regimen of procedures in order to receive a license.

The pilot project would last two or three years and include five to 10 lakes yet to be determined, said Sean Sisler, commercial aquatic programs and fish health consultant for the DNR in St. Paul.

The goal of the project is to shed light on “what types of things we can do and have confidence that we’re not increasing the risk of spreading these invasive species,” he said.

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Issue of gear

The challenge, Sisler said, is that the DNR doesn’t ordinarily allow minnow trappers to use hard-sided traps in infested zebra mussel waters because the invasive mollusks attach to hard surfaces.

Zebra mussels are less apt to attach to soft gear such as seines and dip nets that don’t sit in the water overnight. Such nets can be used in zebra mussel-infested waters, but they aren’t as effective at trapping spottail shiners

“With some of the lakes, we’re finding that if you can’t use traps, it’s just really difficult to harvest minnows – period,” Sisler said. “The whole point of the pilot project is to get this nailed down to, first of all, see if we can use traps without spreading invasive species. And if we can, what are the permit conditions that would work for bait dealers that would allow them to use the traps in a safe manner.

“That’s why we’re trying to focus on a few lakes – get some data from that and try to work out what the kinks might be.”

The potential kinks are considerable, including a Minnesota law that prohibits moving invasive species, such as zebra mussels that might be attached to a minnow trap. The pilot project will require that trapping gear be lake specific, and DNR staff must be available nearby to inspect the gear as needed, Sisler said.

Another issue is where gear will be stored when it can’t be moved off-site.

“The second that you take a prohibited invasive species onto a road, that’s a violation of state law,” Sisler said.

If the gear is stored onsite, that’s not an issue, Sisler said. If that’s not an option, a way to allow transporting gear to a place where it could be decontaminated would have to be developed.

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“These are all things we’ve got to work out and make sure that this is something that minnow dealers are able to do,” he said.

Lakes to be announced

The DNR hasn’t chosen lakes for the pilot project, but Upper Red Lake, Otter Tail Lake and Lake of the Woods are among the likely participants, Sisler said. The DNR mails out license renewal packets to currently licensed minnow dealers in January and recently wrapped up an outreach project with minnow dealers across the state that focused on harvesting minnows in zebra mussel waters.

Minnesota has between 300 and 350 minnow dealers in the state each year, Sisler said.

In Minnesota, golden shiners require two years to grow to maturity in the wild, and the state’s long, cold winters make raising them commercially for bait in natural ponds challenging.

“I’m waiting to hear back from more minnow dealers to get this list together, and the intention is that we would have it ready for this spring,” Sisler said. “We’re still getting responses back, so it would be premature to say which lakes are going to be chosen, but Red Lake is definitely one that will probably be on the list.

“We want to get input from the minnow dealers, but the actual decision on which lakes will be included will be the state’s decision.”

If Upper Red ultimately is among the participants, the project will buy some more time for minnow dealers on the lake, who have basically been in limbo since March 2019, when larval zebra mussels were found. Because the news came so close to the spring minnow trapping season and the DNR had already issued permits, minnow trappers on Upper Red were given a one-year variance, Sisler said.

On Upper Red, the gear restriction wasn’t an issue until March 2019, when the DNR confirmed larval zebra mussels, called veligers, had been found the previous summer in water samples taken from Red Lake Nation tribal waters. Because the announcement came so close to the spring shiner trapping season, which typically begins in late April or early May and lasts about six weeks, the DNR granted Upper Red minnow trappers a one-year waiver on the gear restriction. Last week’s DNR action extends that waiver for another year on Upper Red and Winnie, but the gear restrictions remain on other spottail lakes infested with zebra mussels, said Bob Meier, DNR assistant commissioner.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdown extended the variance.

VHS-free zones

In related Minnesota bait industry news, the DNR has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission’s Fish Health Committee to certify most of Minnesota’s watersheds except the Lake Superior Watershed as VHS-free zones .

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VHS is short for viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a fish disease to which shiner species and smelt are especially susceptible. The VHS-free zones result from more than 10 years of testing without an outbreak of the disease in Minnesota inland waters, Sisler said.

The designation potentially will open more bodies of water for minnow dealers to harvest bait without the need for additional testing, Sisler said, a process both time-consuming and expensive.

“We’re really hoping this will help make more spottail shiners available this spring,” he said.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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