Bait debate rages on the Mississippi

Discussion in 'Mississippi River Basin' started by Steve, May 2, 2010.

  1. Steve

    Steve Staff Member

    Bait debate rages on the Mississippi


    By Lee Fahrney
    Contributing Writer

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 10:16 AM CDT
    La Crosse, Wis. - The debate is a familiar one for those who regularly fish the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Prior to recent rule changes, anglers had been able to seine baitfish such as minnows or willow cats from the waterway and use them for bait. According to Wes Domine, of Fountain City in Buffalo County, it's a grand, old tradition among "river rats" along the Mississippi to catch their own bait, thus saving money and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

    But with the emergence of the disease known as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, harvesting ones own bait is forbidden on Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, the Winnebago system, the Mississippi, and all waters connected to these waters up to the first barrier impassable to fish.

    "While VHS has not yet been discovered in the Mississippi, its presence elsewhere suggests the disease is spreading," said Ron Benjamin, DNR Mississippi River fisheries supervisor. "Rather than going through the rule-making process twice, you're pre-empting it and rolling the process into one."

    Meanwhile, it's not only VHS that has officials worried. According to Benjamin, "Even if VHS hadn't appeared, we were in the process of losing the Mississippi to bait harvest anyway."

    "We've found Asian carp in the La Crosse area all the way up to the St. Croix," he said. "There is also a microscopic snail that actually kills waterfowl. We lose up to 10,000 coots and ducks each year."

    Benjamin also points out that Minnesota has closed the river to bait harvest, making Wisconsin's protocol consistent throughout the watershed.

    At the recent spring hearings on April 12, however, sportsmen and women had an opportunity to make their feelings known about the issue. Question 85 read, "Would you support the allowed harvest and use of legal bait species from/on the Mississippi River or its tributaries up to the first barrier, for personal angling use only, provided no bait is transported away from the river or those tributaries?"

    Domine submitted the proposal as a local resolution at the 2009 hearings. It passed through the Conservation Congress gauntlet that included the Mississippi River Study Committee, the Executive Council, and finally the entire Congress delegation at the state convention last year. Hence, the question appeared on the ballot for statewide consideration at this year's hearings.

    Domine argues that since it's legal to bring minnows to the river if purchased from certified bait dealers and then take them to other bodies of water later, the threat of spreading invasives remains.

    "Considering that live bait is routinely kept in livewells or given fresh water to maintain survival, the current law stands contrary to minimizing the potential spread of VHS," he said.

    The measure passed statewide, 1,917-925 in 65 counties.

    While the question passed 39-23 in Buffalo County, it failed 7-10 in nearby Trempeauleau County. "That's maybe because I was there and explained the reasons," Benjamin said.

    Others share Domine's concerns.

    "Question 85 engaged public discussion of the impacts of invasive organisms," said Marc Schultz, of Onalaska. "Not enough of that is happening."

    Schultz views the harvesting of bait a cultural issue that should remain a high priority for fish managers.

    "The Mississippi River, due to its very diverse nature, offers a lot to anglers who historically have used the forage fish in the river for bait," he said. "This would be particularly true for youth who make an adventure out of capturing and using fish for bait. In that process, they learn a lot about the river."

    According to Benjamin, however, there are compelling reasons for the ban.

    "Once you allow bait harvest, which also requires traps or nets, the different equipment could be contaminated with exotics," he warns.

    DNR Bureau of Fisheries Chief Mike Staggs offers further background on the decision-making process.

    "The current rules are a compromise that came out after nearly a year of spirited and controversial discussion and negotiations among the Natural Resources Board, Legislature, and the public on the best way to deal with VHS in Wisconsin," Staggs said. "The original proposed rules were generally simple - anglers were not allowed to take any live fish away from the water and everyone had to drain all the water out of their boating and fishing equipment when leaving the water body.

    "Under these rules it would have been OK to seine minnows for personal use on the water that day so long as they weren't taken off the water," he said. "However, there was significant backlash from some anglers who wanted to take home unused minnows at the end of the trip for later use - to the level that the Legislature refused to accept the more general rule passed by the NRB.

    "The compromise allowed anglers to take home minnows under certain conditions, including that the minnows must have been originally bought at a Wisconsin bait dealer and that either the minnows are not exposed to any water from the water body where the angler is fishing, or the minnows would only be used again on the same water body."

    According to Staggs, law enforcement officials argued that this provision was unenforceable. Unwilling to rely on what they believed to be unenforceable regulations, the NRB added an additional restriction on the harvest of any minnows from any VHS-affected waters.

    "The rules, as written, would allow our wardens to properly enforce the laws against those few bad actors," Staggs said.

    Domine, on the other hand, claims anglers are appalled by the current rules.

    "I've witnessed shock and disbelief when people are first informed of the bait harvest restrictions," he said. "Many river anglers are of the opinion that the current restrictions are neither workable nor fair.

    "No one wishes to risk further spread of invasives, and the current rules were enacted with the best of intentions," said Domine, who serves as the secretary of the Conservation Congress Mississippi River Committee.

    "However, prior evaluation did not properly assign risks or containment. Nor did it take into account the vastness of this ecosystem and the needs and culture of thousands who live, work, and play along our mightiest river system."