Don Pereira was named Minnesota’s chief of fisheries late last year. As a 30-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Pereira talks about his vision for managing the state’s 5,400 fishing lakes and thousands of miles of rivers and streams.
How would you characterize fishing in Minnesota in 2014?
In general, it’s excellent. That doesn’t mean every angler is destined to catch a fish. It does, however, mean that we have a wide diversity of species and an abundance of outstanding fishing opportunities. Think about it. Our walleye fishing is well known throughout the nation. We offer some of the best muskellunge fishing in the country. Bass fishing is good. The Red River offers amazing catfish opportunities. The big rivers in southern Minnesota hold spectacular flathead catfish. And there’s great trout fishing in Lake Superior and the
streams of northeastern and southeastern Minnesota. We’re known for species variety, size quality and beautiful lakes. That’s why we rank second in the nation only to Alaska as an inland angling destination.
What’s driving fishing quality?
It’s a function of many things but most important is habitat. Fish need places to spawn, rear young, forage, hide from predators and do other things as part of an interrelated natural system. When an element of the system disappears, so does the potential to have a strong and balanced fish population. That’s why we emphasize the need for habitat conservation and sound land use practices that keep water clean and clear. Research. Regulations. Enforcement. Voluntary catch-and-release. These and other factors also are key to fishing quality.
What’s your vision for managing Minnesota fish and fishing?
I’ve told staff we are going to focus on what’s most important to good fish populations and fishing recreation – that’s habitat conservation, collecting the data we need to make science-based decisions, and listening to our public. I’m particularly interested in the latter, especially reassessing the way we engage the public. On the administrative side I’m deeply committed to identifying efficiencies for better results.
What efficiencies have been made in the past?
Walleye stocking is an area where we made significant gains. We’ve fine-tuned walleye fingerling stocking rates for maximum results. We’ve expanded walleye fry stocking in the name of cost reductions and higher return rates to the angler. We’re also doing a statewide evaluation of our walleye program to identify efficiencies and new opportunities.
I’d say our investments in clean water and habitat are also efficiencies. That’s because the best business model is to have nature replenish fish populations. Currently, about 80 to 85 percent of Minnesota’s walleye are from natural in-lake production. We need to keep natural production at a high level.
Do you envision any “out of the box” changes?
What I envision is sound science and an engaged public in decision making. In the near-term, any out of the box efforts will likely relate to northern pike management. Northern pike have been problematic for decades because of low harvest rates of small pike and high harvest of the relatively few large pike. As a result, most lakes have northern pike populations dominated by fish of a size that people aren’t overly interested in catching or keeping. So, we are exploring a zoned approach to northern pike management. This approach would encourage the expanded taking of smaller northern pike in some parts of the state and protect big fish in others. We’ve never done this before. We’ll take public comment if we move forward with this concept. But it has the potential to address angler and fish manager desires.
What do you view as the biggest threat to fishing?
The most insidious threat to healthy fisheries is the piece-by-piece degradation of habitat that occurs over time. That’s why I am such a strong advocate for robust habitat and clean water conservation efforts funded through the Legacy Amendment and other sources. When you look at our agency’s history we’ve made great progress in designing and implementing special fishing regulations that maintain the size quality of our fish. We’ve also done a good job rearing fish, stocking fish and monitoring fish populations. Now is the time to invest more heavily in protecting nature’s fish factory. Nutrient loading and siltation rates of our waters are not sexy themes but what happens on the land affects our water and ultimately the quality of our fishing.
What’s the most challenging part of being fisheries chief?
The big challenge is finding the right balance between how many fish an angler can take home and eat and how many fish must be returned to the water so they create future generations of fish or provide high quality fishing experiences. It’s a fine line. That’s why our social science studies and citizen engagement processes are so important.
Where has citizen input had the most impact?
Perhaps the best example is our special fishing regulations. Twenty-four years ago we met with a group of anglers who were concerned about the declining average size of Minnesota’s fish. This was meeting was the first Fisheries Roundtable. That meeting led to what we called individual lake management, which meant developing and applying certain restrictive harvest regulations tailored to the needs of specific lakes for the purpose of increasing the number of medium- and large-sized fish. It was controversial at the time but is widely accepted now. This input ultimately reversed downward size trends for a number of fish species, thereby allowing anglers to catch larger fish while also providing opportunities to take home a meal.
Have you fished lately, and how was it?
My most recent trip was to the Rainy River for the spring lake sturgeon season. I caught two fish in the mid-50 inch range. It was an amazing experience – an experience with roots clear back to the habitat improvements generated by the Clean Water Act of the 1970s. Better water quality led to an improved fishery that has sparked growth in the early season fishing economy in the Baudette area. It took decades to occur but is a welcome sight today.