Where do you draw the line between desirable and disposable? Between fashionable and gauche? Between hero and pariah?
When it comes to fishing, the lines that were drawn generations ago are beginning to blur and shift. Right now, Minnesota is in the process of redefining what it means to be “rough,” and it’s about time.
Historically, the fisheries community has used the term “rough fish” for dozens of species that sat opposite game fish in hearts and minds. Carp, suckers, buffalo, gar, and many others were lumped together under that one term, and they were usually subject to limitless exploitation. “Rough” was a blunt management tool, but nobody much cared.
Now times have changed, and we know more about the value of native species some called “trash fish.” Fisheries professionals wish to manage resources differently, but they are rather hamstrung while invasive fish, like carp, are still lumped in with fish that deserve better protection, like buffalo. They need more refined legal leverage.
Well, the “No Junk Fish” movement is picking up steam here, and legislation that has been in the works for over a year is poised to become law.
Where we are
The No Junk Fish bill says that native fish and invasive fish will be re-classified, so as to separate them legally. It has enjoyed support from Minnesota DNR, Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Conservation Federation, and others.
My friend Tyler, of Native Fish for Tomorrow, predicts the term “rough fish” will go away. “You’re gonna have to come up with a new category for either the native or the invasive, or both,” he recently told me. Just how that unfolds will be determined after the DNR makes its recommendations and a new work group (which convenes tomorrow) provides guidance.
The bill also calls for funds for a full-time position, for two years, to implement the plan. By the way it sounds, it will be a lot of work.
Yesterday I heard No Junk Fish has been included in both Minnesota House and Senate environment omnibus bills. We’re tantalizingly close now.
But as I wrote for the Outdoors column in the Mankato Free Press on 2/5/23, Minnesota DNR has already taken some no-junk-fish steps. In recent years, they’ve shifted some species around, dropped the “under-utilized” designation, added some species to the list of game fish, and established a limit for gar. Word on the street is that limits are also coming for burbot, cisco, whitefish, and eel.
If incremental steps like these keep trickling out, it will be good for fish, aquatic ecosystems, and ultimately humans. If No Junk Fish becomes law, it could open up the floodgates. I’m optimistic that one way or another, Minnesota will lead the way to modern native fish management.
For now, let’s take aim at the way we classify and talk about fish.
As long as the term “rough” remains in place for any fish, old mindsets and attitudes will persist. For generations, rough has meant worthless, and that won’t change.
The obvious solution is to get rid of the term rough entirely to help divide native fish from invasive fish. I mentioned this to Brad Parsons (Fisheries section manager) at the Minnesota DNR Roundtable on January 20th this year, in a brief conversation at day’s end. He told me removing that word from the lexicon would be extremely problematic (nearly impossible) because of how extensively it has been used in law/rule/statute/etc. “You just wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
It would be great to have one new term for carp (common and otherwise), and another for the formerly-rough native fish. So if we can’t get rid of rough, why not keep and redefine it to include all introduced/invasive species, including common carp, invasive carp, goldfish, round gobies, ruffe, and any others that may come along? Wishful thinking on my part, probably.
Perhaps we’re moving toward a future where all native fish will be included in the “game fish” category. I imagine it won’t be that simple, however, at least because of current factors like selling rough fish or using them as bait.
In the event that new terminology is needed for our valued-yet-under-appreciated fish, there are many options. I have heard a few, and to be honest, I’m not crazy about some of them. Here are some criteria I hope will come into play:
Establish distance from existing labels.
Though under-utilized went out of use a few years ago (and it’s not bad, though it sounds clinical), it could be revived and redefined. However, that could cause confusion.
I’ve heard non-game bandied about. The problem is it sounds like the opposite of game, which is an unfortunate overtone. Moreover, when applied to hunting, non-game implies animals not pursued or not worth pursuing. This is of course not the case for catchable native fish.
Choose meaningful terminology.
A somewhat obvious choice is native. It certainly fits the bill. Unfortunately, the use of native as a replacement for rough is problematic, and native fish proponents acknowledge this. The implication is that so many fish like walleyes, catfish, and panfish are not native to our waterways. Of course, that is untrue.
In this way, we can see that in addition to coming up with new terms for valued fish, there is a need to avoid creating misunderstandings.
One term I like a lot is keystone. I thought this should convey the essential nature of our native fish. When I consulted Merriam-Webster for a good definition, I saw it is already in use: “[keystone species]: a species of plant or animal that produces a major impact…on its ecosystem and is considered essential to maintaining optimum ecosystem function or structure.” In other words, “keystone species” is already an accepted term and means exactly what we need it to. Frankly, it’s perfect.
Essential is close to keystone, and a little more explicit in its meaning. Elemental could also work.
Apart from describing the role of native fish in ecosystems, I think sporting fish is a decent choice. It hints at the value of pursuing this class of fish, whether it be for challenge, life list, or just plain fun. Plus, the word sporting sounds like it’s in the same league as game, which of course helps elevate all native fish to similar status.
Let’s create value around our native fish
Looking to the long game, anglers need reasons to value all native fish. New designations and rules won’t be enough. For starters, native fish need to have possession limits. As some have said, giving a species “no limit” sends the message that it is worthless. We need to steer away from that implied message if anglers are ever to esteem what they once considered “trash fish.”
It’s great there is a limit now on gar. A positive move, for sure. But my initial reaction to the new limit of 10 was that it is too high. I’d be hard pressed to believe that anybody is eating 10 gar. No doubt bowfishing enthusiasts want it to be more, and would balk at lowering it. Well, I would like to shoot ten grouse in a day, but I know that to be unreasonable. Restraint, as prescribed by law, is a good thing.
The last component in bringing “rough” fish up to their rightful place in anglers’ hearts and minds is creating angling value. It seems obvious, but you don’t see much of that. For any one such segment on a fishing show, there are at least 50 bass fishing segments, 100 online and magazine bassing articles, and a dozen million-dollar bass tournaments.
We need fishing experts to create content (I’m no expert, but I’m trying to do my part). Please, show us how fun it is to catch a 30-pound buffalo. Tell us how to cook drum or sucker. Anglers want to be told how to catch fish, where, with what tackle, in what season. In boats, from shore, through the ice.
Then, and only then, will we achieve total buy-in. It might be a long way into the future, but at least we can finally see it.