Minnows—one of Minnesota's smallest, yet most important, fish
Photo courtesy of Barry Thole, Lincoln Bait
Minnow farm in Staples, Minn. Adult minnows are trapped or netted periodically to supply local bait shops. The paddle wheel maintains high oxygen levels and water flow—both necessary for minnow health. The netting above helps reduce predation by birds, which can account for significant production loss.
For many Minnesotans, the arrival of spring means one thing: fishing opener! Like the other 1.4 million Minnesotans with a fishing license, I have been dreaming all winter of getting in the boat and catching a few fish. However, before all the fishermen can get on the water, quite a bit of fishing has already been done. Minnesota's aquaculture and minnow harvest industries brave the unpredictable elements of early spring to catch the minnows we use for bait.
Although small, minnows are a big part of Minnesota's economy. The 2005 USDA Census on Aquaculture found that Minnesota-harvested minnows fetched over $5 million in the wholesale market. That number translates into hundreds of millions of little fish! The value is then multiplied at the retail level when bait shops sell the fish to the angling public. Furthermore, the indirect value of Minnesota production goes a long way to support one of the nation's largest recreational fishing industries, valued in the multi-billions of dollars.
Minnow harvest and culture in Minnesota is a longstanding tradition. These practices go back generations for some Minnesota families who make their living harvesting and/or raising minnows. The first private fish hatchery licenses were issued in the 1920s, and were primarily used for raising white suckers. To this day, white suckers remain a popular baitfish used to catch walleyes, northern pike, and muskies. Since the 1920s, the Minnesota aquaculture industry has grown. Baitfish culture, combined with wild baitfish harvest, has made Minnesota's baitfish industry the second largest in the nation. This is important because in Minnesota all fish used for bait must be raised or harvested in the state. Importing fish from out-of-state for use as bait has been prohibited for about 50 years.
For the aquaculture and baitfish industries to be passed on to the next generation, however, they must adjust to mounting pressures. The introduction of aquatic invasive species (AIS) (such as zebra mussels), and diseases (such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia), have forever changed the industry. For example, commercially licensed bait harvesters who wish to harvest from designated AIS-infested waters must take an AIS training course (offered by the MN DNR), keep a separate set of equipment which is designated to be used only in AIS-infested waters, and inspect their fish for the presence of AIS. To monitor for fish diseases, producers are required to have annual diagnostic inspections prior to moving fish. Although these adjustments are often difficult and expensive, everyone involved sees the value of protecting the natural resources, and in turn, the industry and supply of minnows.
While AIS continue to spread, there has been no evidence of an AIS or reportable fish disease spread by the baitfish industry in Minnesota. This is a testament to the industry working hard to elevate their standards, as well as the effectiveness of the current regulatory framework. Minnesota is home to some of the most progressive and creative fish farmers in the region. They are actively researching and implementing biosecurity/AIS prevention plans and new production methods to reduce pressures and protect our natural resources. This has and will continue to help ensure a safe, sustainable supply of these important little fish for years to come.