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Effort aims to protect paddlefish, lake sturgeon

A state panel last week permanently closed commercial gill-net fishing on Lake Pepin.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board voted Wednesday, June 22, to prohibit the fishing method, which officials say has led to protected and threatened fish being killed off in the Mississippi River basin.

“When threatened species keep getting taken through various gear — gill netting — that’s not a good thing,” said Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Supervisor Bob Hujik. “So we are protecting those fish.”

He said the ban aims to protect lake sturgeon and paddlefish — species that thrive in Lake Pepin’s habitat.

The number of paddlefish in Lake Pepin is larger than originally thought, Hujik said. That gives the agency more reason to protect what’s there, he said. Lake sturgeon are considered a “species of special concern” in Wisconsin, while paddlefish are considered threatened here, he said.

The board’s decision makes the ban permanent on one side of the waterway, though Minnesota has also closed off gillnetting. The ban there is temporary, but Kevin Stauffer, an area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the Gopher State won’t be far behind in making the ban permanent.

“That’s our intent,” he said, noting that the request is embedded in a rules package moving through a two-year department process. “For all intents and purposes, we’ve closed gill-netting on Lake Pepin.”

The closure has forced commercial fisherman Rick Johnson to search out different areas to fish.

“There’s only so much water,” he said.

The Kellogg, Minn.-based fisherman said he used to gill-net buffalo fish — a large sucker fish that shares characteristics with carp — on Lake Pepin before the ban.

“It’s affected my livelihood a little bit,” he said. “It’s affected my buffalo harvest a lot.”

Six commercial gill-net operations actively fished Wisconsin’s Lake Pepin waters, while two such businesses operated on the Minnesota side, according to DNR officials from both states.

Hujik said the issue came to a head in July 2015 after a Minnesota DNR report listed 45 paddlefish and lake sturgeon had washed up on the shoreline.

“That’s significant,” he said.

Gill net marks were found on the fish, evidence that Hujik said the fish were released after accidentally being caught in gill nets.

“When they get into gill nets, they die,” he said.

Some of the fish were found with their bellies slit, which Hujik said suggests an attempt by commercial fishermen to sink the fish after accidentally catching them.

“Well, they floated ashore,” he said.

Both states closed gill netting at that point until October 2015. Once gillnetting was reopened, Hujik said commercial fishermen were told that the ban would go back into effect if more dead sturgeon and paddlefish were found.

“We did some analysis and thought long and hard” before closing off gillnetting on Lake Pepin, he said.

Hujik said the department will keep open two small areas on the Wisconsin side — Catherine’s Pass at Bay City and Wacouta Bay in Goodhue County, Minn. — for gillnetting. Other pools in the Mississippi River are also open to gillnetting, Hujik said, noting that commercial fishermen “may just have to travel a little bit more.”

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