I will never forget the excitement of catching my first fish with my grandpa many years ago. It was a perfect summer day at a quiet pond surrounded by lush green plains. I don’t remember what kind of fish I caught, but I remember that it was “a big one.” The rest of the day was a celebration, culminating with a festive fish dinner.
Historical artifacts suggest that fishing has taken place on the land that is now Minnesota for more than 10,000 years. Today, the Department of Natural Resources estimates that approximately 2 million people fish on state waters each year. However, this iconic Minnesota pastime has myriad alarming ecological consequences. As Minnesota’s 2021 fishing season opens on May 15, anglers should prioritize simple actions that reduce harm to wildlife.
Fishing can have surprising and devastating impacts on wildlife. Testing on deceased swans from Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights has confirmed lead poisoning as the cause of death. Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota anglers use lead jigs and other fishing tackle, and a significant amount of this fishing gear has been building up at the bottoms of lakes and rivers, where it is ingested by swans, loons, and other aquatic animals. Consuming just one lead slip shot or jig is a death sentence for birds. Minnesota lawmakers are currently considering a long overdue bill to ban lead fishing gear, which could dramatically reduce these needless deaths. In the meantime, Minnesota anglers can reduce suffering by choosing tin, tungsten, or steel tackle.
Even lead-free fishing gear can have deadly consequences. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (WRC) in Roseville frequently intakes wild animals who have ingested fishing gear. Last year, they treated a spiny softshell turtle who had consumed fishing wire, a mallard duckling with a fish hook that had pierced its bill, a trumpeter swan with a hook embedded in its neck, and even Minnesota’s state bird, a common loon, who had ingested a hook. These are not isolated incidents; fishing equipment frequently kills non-target animals. Most victims don’t make it to WRC.
Live bait is another source of destruction. All 15 species of terrestrial earthworms in Minnesota are non-native, believed to be brought here unintentionally by European settlers. The spread of these worms is exacerbated by irresponsible fishing habits. Many anglers release nightcrawlers or other worms into the woods; what they don’t know is that earthworms are an ecologists’ nightmare, quickly decomposing leaf litter that protects seedlings from drought. The result is loss of wildflowers, ferns, and other native plant life. The domino effect initiated by this biodiversity loss threatens wildlife habitat, forest productivity, and water quality. The DNR recommends disposing of live bait in the trash, rather than dumping it on the ground or in the water.
Recent scientific discoveries reveal that fish have rich social and emotional lives. According to ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, “[Fish] plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers.” Fish also carry out intricate courting rituals and develop lifetime bonds with other fish. These findings are transforming the way society sees fish.
A Minnesota woman named Holly Jorgensen recently discovered the complex cognition of fish for herself. Last year, Kare11 News covered the heartwarming story of her 5-year friendship with a wild sunfish named Greenie. Greenie would eat from Jorgensen’s hand, wait for her at the dock, follow her around, and even appeared to enjoy chin rubs. Jorgensen wrote a short poem in honor of her unlikely companion: “To have a friend who’s not like me is to swim in the sky and fly in the sea.”
I realize now that what I enjoyed most about fishing as a child was the beauty of nature and the time with my family. I will always treasure my memories fishing with my grandpa, but I have found I prefer to watch a fish swim free and marvel at the complex lives of our underwater cousins. Anglers may not share my view, but we can find common ground by prioritizing practices that preserve healthy ecosystems. Every Minnesotan plays a vital role in conserving the natural beauty and wildlife in our state.
Julie Knopp is president of the board at Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis.
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