Points North: How's the fishin? Don't ask the fish...or the ducks

A Northern Minnesota lake
A Northern Minnesota lake

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A recent press release from the Minnesota DNR was a head-scratcher. Touting the agency's "growing emphasis on maintaining and improving fish habitat," the release explained how the destruction and elimination of aquatic vegetation by shoreline property owners adversely affects spawning, nursery and feeding areas used by common game fish and panfish species. True enough, although if the DNR really is just getting into the business of maintaining and improving fish habitat, one might ask, then just what have they been doing with our fishing license monies for the last 70 years?

Actually, the shift toward ecologically based fish management started during the 1990s, when Rod Sando was the DNR commissioner and Jack Skrypek was chief of the Fisheries Section. And biologists have long known healthy habitat, especially in biologically productive shoreline shallows, is key to supporting fish populations. But the rest of the release got to the reality of what happens in the shallow shoreline waters of most Minnesota lakes: wanton habitat destruction that has continued to occur despite the good intentions of DNR fish managers.

How's that, you say?

The release went on to describe how shoreland property owners-the folks who own cabins and homes along the shores of our lakes-are allowed to destroy aquatic vegetation to accommodate their personal use of a public resource. With the DNR's blessing (a permit), you can attack fish habitat with poison, machines and hand tools, or smother it with sand. And you don't need any reason more than having a desire to dock your boat or build a swimming beach. Of course, the biological desert you create beneath the water's surface is just an extension of the tidy mowed lawn replacing the natural vegetation that once was habitat for an array of wild critters-many of which cannot survive without it.

The difference is that you own and pay for dry land you turned into a lawn. Beyond the water's edge, the aquatic vegetation belongs to the state-in other words, to all of us. As a general rule of thumb, so does the lake bottom. Yet the Minnesota mindset is such that the property rights of the landowner extend into this public domain, allowing the landowner to use chemicals and machines to alter or eliminate aquatic vegetation that is vital to the health of public fisheries.

It is difficult to imagine a similar terrestrial scenario. A farmer can't make a wide swing with his mower to harvest some hay off an adjacent state wildlife management area. And heaven forbid if you get caught picking a bouquet of wildflowers within a state park. Perhaps the difference is that we can see the damage occurring on land. What happens underwater is out of sight and out of mind.

But whether or not you can see it, lake bottom habitat degradation is extensive enough on individual lakes and collectively on lakes statewide to be a significant factor in why Minnesota fishing ain't as good as it used to be. It is telling that in a recent interview with Minnesota Outdoor News, retiring Brainerd area DNR Fisheries Supervisor Tim Brastrup considered ongoing fish habitat loss from lakeshore development to be the biggest fisheries problem in a part of the state once famous for good fishing.

Said Brastrup of lakeshore property, "Everything of high quality is developed now. The stuff folks are going after now is marginal lakeshore and that has more of an impact. A lot of habitat is disappearing because of it...I don't think it's in as good of shape now as it was 25 years ago."

So, if the places where fish spawn and eat are not in as good of shape today as they were in the not-so-distant past, then it stands to reason that the fishing isn't what it used to be either. Yet this diminishment of fishing quality seems to draw little reaction from anglers, nor does continuing degradation of habitat and water quality draw much more than half-hearted lip service from the state's environmental community. Do we perhaps consider the oh-so-Minnesotan place on the lake to be more sacred than the lake itself?

Fish, their habitat and the water they swim in are public resources and their health is essential to the common good. But we neglect their health for our convenience-to create a sandy swimming beach where bass and panfish once spawned or to clear a channel so the propeller on the family speedboat doesn't get tangled with weeds. As individuals, our actions seem insignificant, but when you add up thousands of underwater moonscapes on thousands of waters, our collective actions make a mockery of this Land of 10,000 Lakes.

The aforementioned DNR news release went on to say the state shoreland rules were recently tweaked to do a little better job of protecting habitat during new development projects. But the tweaks won't fix what is already broken. Nor will the tweaks change the Minnesota mindset that allowed decades of habitat degradation to occur. If we could look underwater and see what we've done to lake bottoms, the habitat destruction wrought upon our waters would be categorized as a vast environmental disaster. Instead, all we see is the sun setting across the water as we kick back, relax and tell ourselves we appreciate Nature at our place on the lake.

It's too bad we can't ask the proverbial question, "How's the fishin?" to the fish. They'd probably tell us their place in the lake just ain't what it used to be. And you know what? The few wild ducks remaining in the state would agree.

Airdate: May 21, 2010

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