The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will cancel its 2020 egg take operations for walleye, northern pike, muskellunge and steelhead because the work cannot be done safely under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
Collecting eggs and sperm from spawning fish in the wild is a labor intensive effort that requires teams of 6-8 people working in close proximity. After a careful examination of whether the egg take process could be re-engineered, the DNR determined that is was not possible to safely handle fish during the egg take and practice appropriate social distancing to protect staff from COVID-19.
The DNR collects eggs each spring to hatch, raise and then release either as fry or fingerlings to stock Minnesota waters that have low or no natural reproduction of these fish species. While this stocking is important to maintain fish populations and angling opportunities over time, missing one year will not cause long-term harm to the fish population of any waterbody.
“Fish populations naturally are made up of fish hatched in different years, so a missing or weak year class is not uncommon,” said Brad Parsons, fisheries section manager for the DNR. “In fact, in lakes with natural reproduction, a strong year class often follows a weak year class, so not stocking for one year might actually benefit the following year’s stocked fry.”
Canceling egg take activities means walleye eggs and fry will not be available for the DNR’s cooperative fish management programs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation. In addition, the DNR will not be able to fulfill requests from private sector hatcheries to purchase eggs and fry in 2020.
Since hatchery rearing ponds will not be in use, the DNR will lower the water levels in many of these ponds to improve long-term productivity and future fish-rearing capacity. Other hatchery repairs, such as dike and pond improvements, also can be done when water levels drop.
Because this winter was relatively mild in southern Minnesota, there should be good numbers of walleye in natural rearing ponds that were not harvested last fall. Those fish will help replace some fingerlings for the 2020 season.
Minnesota joins some other Midwest states including South Dakota, Michigan and Indiana in suspending egg take operations. In addition, the USFWS canceled all planned lake sturgeon production for 2020.