Inside the Outdoors: Fish and politics cook up an unpalatable chowder
I'm as ardent a believer in the democratic system of government as anyone. But sometimes you have to admit it has its weak points. Winston Churchill, one of the most important world leaders of my parents' generation, put it well when he said that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Meaning, of course, that while democracy has its failings, other forms of government are worse.
In a democracy like ours, the people we elect to represent us can propose just about anything. If enough of their fellow lawmakers go along with it, that proposal — good or bad — can become law. If we think that everyone we elect and send to St. Paul — or Washington, D.C. — is bound to have good judgment, we're either very young or way too trusting. Some really questionable ideas find their way into legislation, are debated, come up for a vote and even become law.
A good example is legislation currently up for consideration by our state senators and representatives at the Capitol in St. Paul. Part of that legislation would let county commissioners decide which species of fish the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can stock in lakes that are entirely within that county's borders. Given the fact that any lake with public access is considered public water, and is free to be used responsibly by all Minnesotans, this is a bold step.
As is so often the case, there is more to the story. This proposal, which would give 87 different county boards of commissioners the last word in Minnesota fish stocking, is a tactical move. It is secondary to a proposal opposing the DNR's plans to expand its program of stocking muskies in Minnesota waters. The legislation would prevent the DNR from stocking muskies in any new waters, and funds that had been planned for such use would be redirected to stocking walleyes.
At its most basic, this is a matter of personal preference. There are far more Minnesotans who self-identify as walleye fishermen than as muskie fishermen, though some are enthusiastic about both. Tourism enters the picture, too. Some fear that stocking this top-of-the-food-chain predator will reduce walleye-catching success, and cash-spending visitors will become ex-visitors.
Just to add another dimension to objections to muskie stocking, some have even contended that stocking muskies will discourage people from swimming. Rare, but widely-publicized incidents of gashes suffered while swimming — rightly or wrongly attributed to muskies — have added a Big Bad Wolf element to the debate.
Muskie enthusiasts, many of whom are extremely avid — pursuing this fish almost to the exclusion of others — are solidly behind the DNR. The DNR claims it is only proposing muskie stocking where it confidently believes the overall fish populations won't be harmed. The agency points to fish census data on lakes where both muskies and walleye populations are thriving. There are certainly lakes where both species have coexisted since long before Minnesota had a conservation agency to manage them. That said, it's certainly true that lakes and rivers can be different from one another in many ways, favoring some species more than others.
What makes the issue so intractable is the fact that the good or bad of stocking muskies in new waters can't be tested in a laboratory. The only laboratory for proving the wisdom or folly of wider stocking is the real thing. And then, it goes without saying, you may not be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
I have a lot of faith in Minnesota's fisheries professionals. But not absolute faith. There have been some high-profile mistakes. The latest to come to light is a four decade program of stocking Lake Superior streams with a western Canadian race of rainbow trout. It has interbred with the wild steelhead rainbow strain there, and diluted the genetics of that far more desirable fish. To its credit, the DNR conducted the research that revealed this problem, and has responded by halting the program. In the DNR's defense, it should also be remembered that all science — including fisheries science — is in part trial-and-error and learning from those errors.
Nevertheless, whatever the wisdom — or not — of expanding the number of muskie waters in Minnesota, it's hard to see how giving county commissioners the power to make fisheries management decisions could be the answer. Some of these well-meaning citizens may have scientific expertise or the gumption and curiosity to inform themselves. Others wouldn't know a shiner from a black eye.
The idea that county commissioners would have the power to decide what fish get stocked, where, and how many or how few, is frightening. That would be like having 87 separate fisheries departments, each subject to local prejudices, and in all probability guided not by science, but by local politics. That might be another example of democracy at its worst.