Minnesota’s state species: Their past, present, and uncertain future

Walleye (1965)

walleye

Minnesota’s state fish, the walleye // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

It was not until May of 1965 that the walleye, Stizostedion v. vitreum, became the official state fish of Minnesota, though Minnesotans have long treasured the pursuit and taste of this elusive and crafty resident of our sky blue waters.

Walleye are native to most Minnesota lakes, and especially seek out deep, cold water. The average walleye caught in Minnesota is 14 inches long and weighs around one pound. The Minnesota DNR reports that, on average, anglers across the state keep a total of 3.5 million walleye each year.

Walleye habitats have actually increased over the last decades as a result of increased stocking of the fish. The Minnesota DNR stocks over 30,000 adult, 50,000 yearling, and millions of fingerlings in over 1,700 lakes and some 100 streams each year. A 2015 American Fisheries Society report on trends in Minnesota fish populations found that the walleye population increased from 1970 to 1998, but slightly decreased from 1998 to 2013.

According to Paul Venturelli, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s department of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology, Minnesota’s overall walleye population is “okay, but stressed,” and will face increased difficulty over the next 50 years due to climate change and invasive species. Zebra mussels, for example, raise water clarity levels, which forces walleye to seek deeper, cooler, and darker waters. And cooler water is becoming harder to find because of the warming of Minnesota lakes by agricultural runoff and warmer summer temperatures.

Overfishing, poaching, lakeshore development, and water pollution also pose challenges for walleye. To combat these adverse elements, the Minnesota DNR has put limits on the number of walleye that can be taken in certain seasons. They have also begun creating “refugee lakes” in northern Minnesota for walleye food sources like the tullibee.

While providing walleye and its prey safe haven is a fine short-term fix, efforts are underway aimed at creating a sustainable long-term walleye population. Currently, the DNR aims to carefully manage and set up appropriate harvest sizes for the fish, and to better understand the new equilibrium of cold water lakes. In the meantime, the DNR says the best way to maintain walleye numbers is to “protect the variety of lakes and streams they inhabit through existing laws limiting pollution and regulating reservoir and tailrace water levels.”

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