By Dave Orrick, St. Paul Pioneer Press
One of Minnesota's oddest, perhaps coolest, and definitely historically underappreciated fish — the gar — is about to get some love.
The long, slender, toothy and prehistoric-looking fish will, for the first time ever in the state, be protected in ways similar to other gamefish, the result of a bit of an outcry on social media following a series of mass killings that some saw as wantonly wasteful. In a Legislature divided starkly along partisan lines, Minnesota's gar species found bipartisan support.
Officials say they aren't sure exactly what restrictions they'll place on catching and killing gar, but the move carries a growing awareness of changing attitudes toward native fish that humbly live on the opposite end of the piscatorial spectrum from celebrated fish like walleye and bass, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
The much-larger environment and natural resources bill approved by both the House and Senate and contains one brief reference to gar: "The commissioner must annually establish daily and possession limits for gar."
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That simple sentence has gar advocates — and yes, there are a few — celebrating.
"This is a fantastic move for conservation of these underappreciated species," said Solomon David, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. More on point: David is a gar researcher and ambassador, having done his dissertation on gars of the Great Lakes region, and is the principal investigator at the university's Gar Lab, which, yes, is hashtagged #GarLab on social media.
"Most states don't have anything for gar," he said.
It's true. Most states, including Minnesota, consider any gar, which are native to North America, as a "rough fish" with no limits for how many you can kill, of any size, any time of year. It's a legacy of the ignorance of European-centric thinking when America was settled and at various times has applied to native trout and muskellunge — vaunted species today.
Today's Minnesota rough fish include suckers, bowfin, the native carp-looking (but not a carp) buffalo, and freshwater drum, as well as gars. Such fish have virtually zero protection from being killed, be it by hook and line, archery or pitchfork-looking spears through the ice.
Two species of gars (some say "gar" is the plural, and the rules have waivered) are native to Minnesota, the longnose gar and shortnose gar. They slide along the backwaters of the large river systems and for years haven't gained much attention. Anglers occasionally catch them, but their bony mouths tend to resist hooks. A small subculture of fly anglers target them with essentially tassels of yarn that get tangled in their teeth.
The larger of the two, the longnose, can live for up to 40 years; the official state record, caught in the St. Croix River in Washington County, measured an impressive 53 inches, weighing in at a slender 16 pounds, 12 ounces.
Brad Parsons, director of fisheries for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, acknowledges the agency isn't exactly sure how healthy gar populations are in the state.
"We assume so, but we honestly don't know," Parsons said. Still, the idea of any native fish being regulated as if it has no value has always irked Parsons, a veteran fisheries biologist who spent decades studying the tapestry of native fishes in the upper Mississippi River in Minnesota.
"These are really cool fish," he said. "At the DNR's pond at the State Fair, it's the paddlefish and longnose gar that get the most attention."
When he took over the DNR's Fisheries Division several years ago, he began a slow campaign to change things. This year's fishing regulations contains a half-page section urging anglers to show rough fish some respect.
The eelpout, or burbot, recently was taken off the rough fish list and declared a game fish, much to Parsons' pleasure.
But the DNR had nothing to do with starting the new gar protections.
That began as a backlash to a video posted to YouTube by some Minnesota ice anglers who were spearing gar through large holes in the ice — a legal pastime called "darkhouse spearing" that is generally practiced for northern pike, but also legal for rough fish and harmful invasive species.
The video, which has since been removed from YouTube, showed 82 dead gar laid across the ice. The spearers said modern technology, including sonar, helped them target the fish. The incident caused an outcry — especially because law enforcement officials determined that the massacre was legal because the fish were not literally discarded, but used in some fashion, likely donated for fertilizer, as is done with non-native common carp.
Similar incidents have garnered backlash elsewhere, including Oklahoma bowfishermen killing and throwing overboard more than 1,000 gar in one outing. It's the flip side of publicly posting wildlife exploits on publicly viewable websites.
David has been one of those raising a stink.
"These are native apex predators that serve a great role in our ecosystem," he said in a recent interview. "Instead of of pitching them in a field and justifying it as fertilizer, we should view these fish in the context of other predators."
For example, David said that, while this hasn't been established, it's possible that gar could prove valuable in controlling invasive carp marching up the Mississippi River because gar often favor shallow backwaters, even when oxygen is low, and could be the only predator of young carp in such waters.
The situation caught the attention of some lawmakers and Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, introduced the measure.
Initially, several Democratic lawmakers wanted to take it further, classifying gar as a gamefish, but that idea lacked enough Republican support to advance. The compromise that resulted will require that the DNR set daily and possession limits for gars — a move that, practically speaking, allows them to be as protected as game fish.
Parsons said even though the DNR had nothing to do with the initiative, the DNR is more than happy to do that. He said the next task is to talk with researchers, gar anglers and other interested parties to try to figure out what those limits should be.
"We really haven't gotten into it yet," Parsons said. "I would doubt there would be closed seasons, but we absolutely could see some limits."