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Minnesotas forgotten fish...........
Minnesota's Forgotten Fish
Should anyone care about Topeka shiners, banded darters, stonerollers, and the
state's 100-plus other native nongame species?
"Trout, trout, another trout." Carrying a 350-watt gas-powered generator on
his back, Konrad Schmidt wades up a coldwater tributary of the St. Croix
River, counting to himself while netting temporarily stunned 6- to 12-inch
brown trout. Using an electrode device attached to a pole, Schmidt pokes under
banks, between sunken logs, and around other likely fish-holding spots. He
slides the pole into a backwater eddy, and a half-dozen of what look to be
minnows pop to the surface. "Okay!" Schmidt shouts excitedly over the motor's
roar. "We've got some red-bellied dace!"
Schmidt is big on dace. And on darters, and shiners, and madtoms, and other
nongame native fish species that inhabit Minnesota waters. The editor of the
North American Native Fishes Association newsletter, Darter, and an expert
stream fish surveyor, Schmidt is among a handful of native fish fans trying to
drum up support for the 100-plus species most anglers dismissively lump
together as forage species or rough fish
It's an upstream struggle. Though biological diversity is one of the hottest
topics among Minnesota scientists, environmentalists, and natural resource
policymakers, rarely does the conversation include native nongame fish.
Warblers, orchids, old-growth forests, and even freshwater mussels are today
recognized as important ecosystem pieces deserving study and protection. Yet
nongame fish, such as the colorful little banded darter, mysterious American
eel, and handsome gilt darter, are largely ignored.
Maybe the biggest obstacle impeding nongame native fish conservation is the
simple fact that few people even know these species exist. Stuck in obscurity
between 35 well-known game species (walleyes, bass, and other fish that
recreational anglers catch for sport and food) and 15 commercial species
(carp, lake herring, and other fish sold as food) are roughly 100 species
ranging in size from pinkie-sized darters to greater redhorse over 3 feet
long. Nongame native fish species, hidden from view of all but the occasional
angler and a few fish-collecting hobbyists, lack supporters who can champion
their needs and value.
"If there was an Audubon Society equivalent for fishes, we'd be in pretty good
shape," says Dr. James Underhill, professor emeritus at the University of
Minnesota and curator of ichthyology at the Bell Museum of Natural History.
A 2-inch-long fish species might soon shed some light on Minnesota's forgotten
fish. As early as August 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may propose
to add the Topeka shiner to the list of species protected under the federal
Endangered Species Act. It would be the first federally protected fish in
The Topeka shiner, found in Minnesota only in the southwestern corner, is a
small relative of the common shiner used for bait. This plain-looking prairie
fish requires clear water-something increasingly rare in farmland regions.
There, intensive farming practices often cause topsoil to erode off the
landscape and into streams, where the resulting silt smothers the eggs of the
Topeka shiner and of other fish species.
Minnesota's Topeka shiner population "probably faces no imminent risk," says
Chuck Kjos, endangered species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. Most of the concern is in Kansas and other plains states. Still,
endangered classification could raise concerns in Minnesota. Indeed, similar
listings of obscure fish species in other states have touched off debates
between environmentalists and property rights advocates about the value of
protecting (or even conserving) shiners, darters, suckers, redhorse, and
dozens of other species lumped under the category of rough fish or minnows.
"This could definitely change the climate surrounding nongame fish in
Minnesota," says Rich Baker, who coordinates the state's program for listing
rare and endangered species.
Though the Topeka shiner has gained some attention, most native nongame fish
continue to be ignored. Fish experts admit that some of these species may well
be thriving, but they point out that others could be suffering.
"That's the problem," says Underhill. "When it comes to native species, we
don't know if we're in good shape or not."
Compared to the warehouse of information on game fish, what's known about
species such as blue suckers (once common in the Mississippi River but now
increasingly rare) or burbots (the only freshwater species to spawn in
midwinter) is alarmingly insufficient. With a few exceptions, the Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Section has done little research or
management aimed at nongame species. Surveying nongame fish sometimes requires
different collection equipment from that used for muskies and other game
species. And even fisheries managers who want to spend time on native nongame
species have trouble convincing angling clubs and lake associations that some
fishing license dollars should go toward maintaining fish biodiversity.
"People want walleyes," says Tim Brastrup, a fisheries manager at Brainerd.
"It's tough enough just getting them to accept us managing bass in their lake,
much less Johnny darters and bowfin."
What's a dace worth?
The primary challenge facing nongame fish fans is to articulate the value of
these apparently worthless species. Schmidt, who dotes on his aquarium rainbow
darters and young paddlefish like a gardener pampering petunias, says that for
nongame fish to get the same attention as nongame wildlife, "more people have
to understand why these species are worth saving."
It's a tough sell. Though some larger nongame fish such as redhorse
carpsuckers, and mooneyes fight hard or taste good, features such as a sucker
mouth or bony flesh make them undesirable to most sport anglers.
The most convincing argument has been to point out the value of native nongame
fish as ecological barometers. Dr. Bob Bellig, a biology professor at Gustavus
Adolphus College in St. Peter who surveys Minnesota River fish populations,
points out that nongame species are indicators of aquatic system health. "The
status of these species reflects water quality and the status of the
environment in general," says Bellig.
Another important value of nongame fish is their link in complex ecological
chains. For example, the disappearance of the ebony shell mussel in the upper
Mississippi River has been traced to the disappearance of the skipjack
herring, which assists in ebony shell distribution by transporting the
mussel's larvae in its gills. In Ohio, the gizzard shad has been closely
linked to bluegill reproduction and walleye growth in large reservoirs.
What's more, birds such as loons, herons, and kingfishers depend on dace and
shiners for food. Otters and other water-based predators feed on these smaller
Nongame fish can also belong to a group of animals known as keystone species.
These seemingly insignificant animals act like the keystone at the top of an
arch, holding the entire ecological structure together.
According to John Lyons, a fisheries research biologist with the Wisconsin
DNR, the hornyhead chub and stoneroller are considered keystone species for
Upper Midwest streams. These fish, when digging out their nests, make gravel
piles used for spawning by red-bellied dace, rosyface shiners, and other
"Dace and shiners provide key forage for smallmouth bass and walleyes," says
Lyons. "Without the hornyhead chub and stoneroller, entire stream food chains
could break down."
Some studies being done
As is the case in most states, Minnesota has yet to formally embrace nongame
fish management. Still, work is being done, and progress is being made. Though
not targeted to nongame species, ongoing DNR fish population surveys in lakes
and rivers do pick up a wide range of nongame species, which are sometimes
"Information collected in conjunction with our lake and stream surveys is
probably still the main source of information on these species," says Jack
Skrypek, DNR Fisheries chief. Over the past decade, more than two dozen
studies, most of them funded by the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, have been
conducted on nongame fish biology, ecology, and distribution, including:
fish population surveys of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to the Iowa
analysis of brook lamprey genetics and population distribution
research on paddlefish by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In addition, Schmidt has voluntarily surveyed fish populations in all
Minnesota national wildlife refuges and in several state parks and large
wildlife management areas.
Dr. Jay Hatch of the University of Minnesota and Dan Siems of Bemidji State
University recently completed a scientific paper describing the newest
documented revisions in the occurrence, distribution, and conservation of
Minnesota species. This information is being incorporated by Hatch and
Underhill into a comprehensive atlas of Minnesota native fish distribution and
Other important work targeting entire fish communities includes:
U.S. Geological Survey analysis of fish communities of the Upper Mississippi
River and Red River basins
DNR Ecological Services studies to document the water flow needed by all fish
species living in streams and rivers
efforts to establish an Index of Biotic Integrity for the major lake and river
basins in Minnesota (see sidebar, "Index of what?").
Some DNR fisheries managers interested in nongame species try to squeeze them
into their game-fish management work. The most notable example has been Knife
Lake, in Kanabec County, which in 1989 was chemically treated to remove carp
and bullheads. Lake rehabilitations such as this remove all species, including
native nongame fish. In this case, the kill-off included 17 miles of the Knife
River and its tributary streams.
Though the DNR planned only to replace game fish (walleyes, bass, catfish, and
bluegills), several fisheries biologists recognized the need to also restore
the nongame species. Working after hours and on weekends, Schmidt and
Brastrup-along with fisheries biologists Kit Nelson and Roger Hugill and DNR
conservation officer Paul Hopp-seined and shocked darters, shiners, dace,
redhorse, and other native species from nearby streams and restocked them into
the Knife Lake system. According to Schmidt, 38 of the original 45 species
have been replaced so far. "It's definitely on its way back," he says.
Another sign that fish biodiversity has gained some official recognition is
the Fisheries Section's long-range plan for nongame fish. Completed in the
early 1990s, the plan points out the need to hire a nongame fish specialist
and broaden surveys to record the status of Minnesota's nongame species. It
also recommends reintroducing native nongame fish with game fish in
rehabilitated lakes, as was done on Knife Lake.
Even guidelines for walleye management now note the effects of certain
practices on nongame species. For example, the guidelines point out that
walleye stocking in Canada has killed some lakes' log perch populations. (How
that might disrupt an entire lake ecosystem and threaten game fish populations
Below the surface
These efforts notwithstanding, native fish conservation sorely lacks funding
and interest. The nongame fish management plan, like many well-intentioned
plans that are never carried out, needs a source of funding to be put into
And that could happen. If it wins congressional approval, a new federal fish
and wildlife conservation initiative could pay for research and management of
nongame fish species. The program would use an excise tax on sporting
equipment such as binoculars and tents to pay for new conservation programs.
Though its name contains no mention of finned creatures, the Teaming With
Wildlife initiative is modeled after the successful Sport Fish and Wildlife
Restoration Program, which over the past 60 years has raised hundreds of
millions of dollars for game fish and wildlife management programs.
"It's the best hope yet for raising money to conserve Minnesota species not in
the angling limelight," says Steve Hirsch, DNRfisheries program manager.
But that could be years away. For now, most anglers and other conservationists
have yet to recognize the interconnectedness of all native underwater plants,
insects, and fish species. Until they do, and demand more public funding to
study and understand these connections, nongame fish will continue to remain
below the surface of public attention.
[sidebar] Natives news
The North American Native Fishes Association, at (612) 776-3468, reports a new
Website at www.nanfa.org. And Dr. Jay Hatch, at the University of Minnesota,
has created a new Website showing 30 color images of various native nongame
species. In the works are natural history, species identification, and range
maps for each species. The site address is www.gen.umn.edu/
In addition, the books listed below, though out of print, are available in
many public libraries and used bookstores.
Fishes of the Minnesota Region. Coauthored by Dr. Underhill, this 1982 book
identifies and lists brief natural histories of Minnesota's 149 fish species.
Fishes of Wisconsin. As big as the unabridged Webster's dictionary, George
Becker's masterpiece is considered the bible for Upper Midwest fish
Fishing for Buffalo. This guide to catching and eating gar, buffalo, redhorse,
burbot, and 31 other so-called "rough fish" includes fascinating tidbits of
natural history and stories of human interactions with these species.