Fisheries management in Minnesota had its formal beginning in 1874 when the Legislature authorized a state fish commission. Some of the commission's first efforts underscore how little was understood about the requirements of different fish species and the perils of introducing nonnative fish. For instance, in the early 1880s, Atlantic and Pacific salmon were stocked into Minnesota's inland waters, including the Cannon River and Lake Minnetonka. Of course, these coldwater-dependent salmon failed to survive in these warm waters.
Other missteps proved irreversible. In the February 1941 Volunteer, prominent ichthyologist Thaddeus Surber wrote: "We are prone to curse the day when carp were introduced into Minnesota. … In 1881 almost frantic efforts were being made by the Minnesota Commissioners to obtain and care for the young carp allotted them. During the few years this craze prevailed, carp were introduced in lakes from the latitude of Brainerd and Moorhead southward and with what success we all know."
In many ways, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer and its predecessor Fins, Feathers, and Fur trace the history of the state's management of fisheries, particularly for walleye. The March 1915 Fins, Feathers, and Fur reported that over the course of two years, more than 200 million walleye fry had been artificially hatched and released. Eben Cobb, superintendent of fisheries, confidently wrote: "These fish have been introduced into lakes where no such fish previously existed, and they have grown and multiplied." A 1920 issue instructed private citizens on how to apply for milk cans of walleye fry to disperse in lakes of their choice.
In the 1930s Samuel Eddy and other researchers at the University of Minnesota developed a systematic method for surveying a lake's aquatic life and water chemistry. Eddy and his colleagues collaborated with the Department of Conservation, paving the way for a better understanding of fisheries.
When The Conservation Volunteer first appeared in October 1940, Minnesota was home to the largest walleye hatchery system in the nation. John Moyle, the Department of Conservation's first full-time fisheries biologist, had been on the job for only two years. The era of modern science-based fisheries management was in its infancy. Biologists at the agency and the university were national leaders in freshwater fisheries research.
For the November 1940 issue, Eddy wrote "Lake Surveys and Their Application." Referring to the roughly 300 surveyed lakes, he said one of the most useful research outcomes would be to determine what types of lakes are most suitable for various species of game fish.
Moyle continued doing lake survey work for the agency, and in 1948 he published groundbreaking research linking a lake's water chemistry to how many pounds of fish it can sustain. Prior to Moyle's findings, the general assumption with fish stocking was that more is always better. That same year Moyle wrote "Two Centuries of Fish Propagation" for the Volunteer. He pointed out that "stocking of waters is not a problem of straight addition. … If a body of water can feed only 100 pounds of fish to the acre, it does not make any difference whether 100,000 or 500,000 small fish begin life there each year. The end result will be the same, 100 pounds per the acre."
Moyle's story went on to challenge the common belief that any water is fit for the state fish. "It has also become clear that there are different kinds of fish lakes," he wrote. "Some are best suited to panfish, some to walleyes, some to trout and some to rough fish. No amount of stocking will make the lake over. It is useless to try to make a walleye lake into a trout lake, or a panfish lake into a walleye lake by stocking."
In the May–June 1968 magazine, Moyle's protégé Jack Skrypek warned of the negative effects lakeshore development would have on fisheries in north-central Minnesota. His story was titled "Beautiful … Or Blighted?" Like Moyle, Skrypek saw pollution, overfishing, and habitat loss as the real culprits behind declining fish populations.
Skrypek went on to head up DNR fisheries in the 1990s. Under the direction of then-Commissioner Rod Sando, he began applying ecosystem-based management to fisheries. Put simply, this approach focused on maintaining and improving water quality and aquatic habitat. Though this still guides fisheries management today, decades of extensive walleye stocking left a lasting impression on many anglers.
"For years, stocking was considered 'successful' because it was a type of fisheries management local residents could actually see and understand," wrote Tom Dickson in his 1993 story "To Stock or Not?" It highlighted research conducted by DNR fisheries biologist Denny Schupp. Regarded as one of North America's leading authorities on walleye biology, Schupp estimated that of the 3.5 million walleyes caught each year in Minnesota, only about 140,000, or 4 percent, came from hatcheries. "The biggest failure," the story noted, "is 'supplemental' stocking, usually done on large lakes in north-central Minnesota where wild walleyes naturally produce billions of fry each spring."
Minnesota still operates 11 hatcheries around the state to maintain walleye populations in 1,050 lakes. The 2009 story "Better Fishing Through Science" identified six distinct regions in Minnesota where walleye stocks shouldn't be mixed due to genetics. Outdoor writer Chris Niskanen stated: "A walleye from the Red River in western Minnesota has slight genetic differences from a walleye living in the St. Louis River near Duluth. Ditto for a walleye from the St. Croix River, which is different from the other two."
Minnesota's fisheries are currently facing threats that weren't present or well understood 75 years ago. For example, stories have cited climate change ("Forecast: Warmer Waters," May–June 2008) and invasive species ("Stop the Invaders," March–April 2012). DNR research scientist Paul Radomski points to the role of history when he says, "Minnesota continues to collect important physical, chemical, and biological information in the tradition of Moyle, Surber, Eddy, and others to inform how natural resources can best be managed for present and future citizens of Minnesota." He notes that he recently used Moyle's insights to develop a model to predict which aquatic plants should be present in a healthy lake. "Such is the nature of science," he adds. "Reliable knowledge is discovered and with time accumulates."
As it does, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine hopes to share that knowledge with readers for years to come.