The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is turning to smartphones to help determine what kind of fish anglers are catching in Minnesota Lakes.
For decades, DNR researchers have relied on time-consuming and expensive surveys to compile that information. But they are rethinking that approach in favor of the nearly ubiquitous device that anglers, much like everyone else, have come to rely on.
This year, the DNR is working with University of Minnesota researchers to see if anglers could submit data on their catch via a smartphone app. The free app, iFish Minnesota, helps anglers log what they're catching and where.
The DNR wants to gauge fishing pressure — how fishing affects lakes — and ensure fish populations can reproduce.
For larger lakes in the state, that has long involved someone going out and interviewing hundreds of anglers to ask about the fishing there, said Melissa Treml, fisheries research and policy manager for the DNR.
Among the questions: What types of fish are you catching? And how big are they?
"If we change a regulation, maybe fishing pressure could go up or down, or the sizes of fish being removed," Treml said. "And then it allows us to see how anglers are responding."
The annual DNR research on the state's 10 largest walleye lakes is known as a creel survey, named for the small wicker basket used by anglers to hold fish.
But for other large lakes, the surveys are on a rotation. For example, a creel survey at Lake Bemidji has been conducted once every 10 years. Treml said it can cost $35,000 to survey just one lake during the open-water season, so the DNR has to weigh its options.
"It's been quite a few years where we've been toying with other ideas just due to the expense and the fact that we can't get to that many lakes," she said.
Paul Venturelli, an assistant professor in fisheries at U of M, said data collection via the smartphone app could help the scientists cope with shrinking research dollars.
"It's also an interesting opportunity to be everywhere all the time," he said. "You can't creel everywhere all the time, but anglers are everywhere all of the time. Someone's fishing right now."
Researchers aim to convince 20,000 to 30,000 anglers to download the iFish Minnesota app and sign up for iFish Forever, a free add-on that allows anglers to share their information anonymously.
If 30 to 50 percent of those people use the app regularly, it could be a viable alternative to the traditional creel survey, Venturelli said. That could give researchers data on even more lakes.
After a year of data collection, researchers will compare the app data with their traditional data-collection methods.
An analysis of app data collected in Alberta, Canada, showed where people were fishing. Officials in Denmark also are trying out the technology. In the United States, Florida researchers are using it. For the app to work for the DNR, Venturelli said, Minnesota participants will have to report accurate data.
"We need people to be using the app correctly, logging every trip and every single fish they catch, even if it's a three-inch perch," he said. "I was ice fishing and caught a bunch of those and dutifully logged all of them, even though my thumb got pretty cold. Otherwise you start to create biases in the data."
Some anglers already have signaled their interest in helping the DNR collect fishing data. Since 2003, Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation, an angling group, has sent the DNR data on bass caught during tournaments and even during private fishing trips.
The group's conservation director, Mickey Goetting, said the iFish Minnesota app sounds like a good idea. The main challenge, he said, will be convincing anglers to use it.
"Our system took some time. You have to keep publicizing that it's out there to get some growth," Goetting said. "You'll get a little pushback in that some people don't want to give up their secret fishing spots, but I think long term it will provide value to the DNR."
Treml said there's no need for anglers to worry about the DNR sharing their secrets.
"It'll all be anonymous. We're not going to be posting your hot fishing spot or anything like that," she said. "It's just for general, broad-scale patterns in their angling behavior, which we hope will help us better manage the fisheries."