Infrequently Asked Fair Questions: What happens to the DNR fish after the State Fair is over?

Spectators watch fish swim in a pond
Spectators watch fish swim in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fish pond at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

For this year’s Minnesota State Fair, MPR’s All Things Considered will be featuring a series called “Infrequently Asked Questions.” MPR News reporters will try to answer fair questions you didn't know you had.

You may have seen MPR News' Tim Nelson on Twitter this week, posting video from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds of the stocking of the DNR fish pond with the state’s native species.

You may have also seen MPR newscaster Phil Picardi asking him the not-so-obvious question: What happens to the fish AFTER the fair?

Well, fair veteran that he is, Tim had anticipated that very inquiry, and actually asked the state Department of Natural Resources about the post-fair fish. Tim was stationed next to the fish pond on Thursday — opening day at the fair — when MPR News host Tom Crann called to find out what he learned.

So, let’s actually tackle this in chronological order: How do the fish get to the state fair? Are there people out fishing for them? Are they hatched for the fair?

Well, as you know, fish stories are long and legendary, and the fair fish are no exception. The truth is: they truly are “fair fish.” Some of them have been to the fair more than you or I have. I talked to TJ DeBates, the east metro fisheries supervisor for the DNR, as they were stocking the pond, and he said they’re a very specialized collection.

Spectators watch fish swim in a pond
Spectators watch fish swim in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fish pond at the Minnesota State Fair.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“They literally live in a pond, close to our office, for most of their lives. Except for the two weeks we’re at the fair,” DeBates said.

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They have a dedicated water control structure there, and the DNR staff gradually lower the top of it as the fair approaches, until the pond is shallow enough that it's easy to net the fish. They line up a bunch of pickups with big tanks in the back and drive them right to the fair.

Do they need acclimation, or treated water, or anything like that?

The pond at the fair is actually very clear well water. It doesn’t come from a lake or river. It doesn’t get treated or cleaned. You could probably drink it at some point — it is fish-ready. It also comes out of the ground quite cool, a little over 50 degrees. That’s a little cooler than most fish are used to in the summer, and that actually slows down their metabolism, which means they don’t eat as much — although the DNR stocks the pond with minnows occasionally to make sure the fish have a snack available.

Spectators watch fish swim in a pond
The Minnesota DNR fish pond at the Minnesota State Fair, as seen on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

So they swim around kind of lazily, and look at the fairgoers for two weeks, gobble up some minnows, then what? Are they released?

Well, if you think about the DNR’s drumbeat of messages, about biosecurity and preventing the spread of invasive species, they can’t really let them go. They’ve all been swimming together for weeks and swapping potential pathogens and whatnot. So, they can’t ever return to the wild. Again, here’s the DNR's TJ DeBates.

“We put them all into our pond, close to our office, and they kind of go to their little retirement community until it’s show time next year,” he said.

A men poses for a portrait
Kao Thao is the DNR naturalist at Fort Snelling State Park and offered talks about the fish at the agency’s State Fair pond for curious fairgoers on the opening day of the fair.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

So he’s saying that these fish make an annual trip to the fair, like the rest of Minnesota?

A lot of them do. But for some it is a one-way trip. DeBates says if you hang around at night and hear lots of splashing — well, let’s just say it’s a fish-eat-fish kind of situation there outside the DNR building, and some of them fall on the prey side of the predator-prey equation.

But he says some of these fish have been at the fair longer than you or I.

“A lot of the bigger fish, especially the sturgeon, I think that has been in our pond ... since the late ’80s. They’re a long-lived fish,” DeBates said. “They can live up to over 100 years old. Between the sturgeon and the paddlefish, they have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. So they’re very long-lived and they’re repeat offenders when they come here.”

That means the sturgeon has literally been swimming around in this pond since the Reagan administration. Fairgoers may want to keep that in mind as they watch these fish swim around — and maybe consider them a little more respectfully, as elders, perhaps.