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What is Fisheries Management?

While we think of the economic impact applying mostly to commercial fisheries, resource agencies certainly care about license and stamp sales and folks that run gas stations, restaurants, fly shops, guide services, hotels, rentals, and other tourism businesses care about angling economics. I can guarantee you that talking about trout per mile and indices of biotic integrity fall mostly on deaf ears but the of resource management.


Sure, biology is listed first but quite honestly the fish and the science are the easy part and they are not all that easy. And in reality, often the biology is not always the first consideration. If it were, many of our ocean fisheries would not be in the shape they are. Nor would stocking be as prevalent as it is. And it would be easy to say, "Hey, we need buffers along our streams", we would have better CAFO laws, would change regulations where we are seeing overharvest - or underharvest, or any number of other things that have demonstrated their biological importance on streams, their fishes, and their habitats. But "the biology" does not occur in a vacuum as many of the biological aspects require the will of the people, and yes, politics.

Driftless spring creek in the fog
An old photo of one of my favorite Driftless streams - today, it is a 10 fish, no size limit stream.

Understanding people is so much more difficult than the biology part, damn near impossible I'd say. We are some messed up, complicated animals. There is simply a lot involved with trying to understand people and more yet, trying to make them happy. Much of fisheries management is trying to provide opportunities for a wide diversity of angler as there is no average angler. There are consumptive anglers - they fish mostly for food. And anglers that never or almost never keep fish. And a wide range of anglers in-between these two categories of anglers. Managers strive to provide a range of opportunities. It is, of course, easier to do so in resource rich parts of the state.

Rullands Coulee
A Driftless Area stream after the 2018 floods.

While we think of the economic impact applying mostly to commercial fisheries, resource agencies certainly care about license and stamp sales and folks that run gas stations, restaurants, fly shops, guide services, hotels, rentals, and other tourisism businesses care about angling economics. I can guarantee you that talking about trout per mile and indices of biotic integrity fall mostly on deaf ears but the $1.6 billion impact of trout related tourism in the Driftless Area is not as overlooked. In a city like Viroqua - an interesting mix of agriculture and tourism - establishments like the Driftless Angler, Driftless Cafe, and others are heavily dependent upon "tourist" anglers. It is a huge part of what makes Viroqua unique and generously a more prosperous community than most of the other communities in the area.

Driftless Cafe
"Opening" weekend dinner - and drinks - at the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua.

If we just relied upon people's desires and maybe economics, Bennett Spring State Park's "trout Park" might be the norm. While I shudder at the thought, no shortage of people see Bennett Springs as trout fishing. You have never truly experienced trout fishing until you have waited for the whistle that opens the day on Bennett Springs and you try to catch one of the 2.4 trout per angler that registered to fish the previous day. I have experienced trout fishing and yes I am judging...


Maybe that is not fair. As we have seen in Wisconsin, the number of fish that have been stocked in trout streams has declined significantly over time and a greater emphasis has been put on producing self-sustaining trout fisheries. You see, stocking is not only not self-sustaining but it is quite expensive. With this change has some changes in how trout anglers think and feel about trout fishing in the state. These social changes do not always occur so quickly. I have called today the good old days of trout fishing in Wisconsin but others certainly do not see it that way. The river they grew up fishing may not be what it once was which may be due to decreased stocking, environmental degradation, climate change, and other factors. As someone once said, "all politics are local", as are our perceptions, quite often.

Bennett Springs Trout Park - MDOC photo
"We've got them surrounded! They have no way out!"

Image source: Missouri Department of Conservation


Often, anglers' first thoughts about management revolves around bag and size limits, which are important - or at least they can be - but are but are generally a small part of the bigger fisheries management picture. It certainly depends upon where you are fishing but in our area of the ultra-productive Driftless Area of Wisconsin, overharvest is typically a minor concern. I'd argue underharvest and harvest of the larger fish are much larger harvest issues. And both of those pale in comparison to issues of pollution (fish kills, sedimentation, degradation), the effects of climate change (floods and droughts), and the historical cultural sedimentation issues that have greatly altered valleys in nearly unfathomable way. Take care of the water quality and quantity and the habitat, then the fish will take care of themselves.

A battered Driftless Area stream
Two important issues are highlighted here - flooding and the alteration of valleys by cultural sedimentation.

Human dimensions research - research about how anglers think and "feel" about fishing, how they spend their money, and things like their preferences and expectations - often tells us that one of the most important things that bag and size limits do it set angler expectations. If the bag limit is three fish over 15 inches and you do not catch a fish over 15 inches, you might consider the day to not be that successful, despite the fact you may have had no intention of keeping any fish. As stated before, there is no average trout angler and anglers fish for a variety of different reasons and have different preferences. Anglers are diverse which means that to successfully provide angler satisfaction - an important concept in human dimensions research - generally means providing a diversity of opportunities.

Bohemian Valley Creek (Coon Creek)
A restored, improved, manipulated, or whatever your choice of words are Driftless trout stream.

Trout streams are facing a number of stressors that reduce their ability to be self-sustaining. Chronic sources of pollution from non-point sources such as erosion from agricultural fields, roadways, and other places continue to enter streams and impact them. Sediment is considered to be the most important pollutant in aquatic systems and is responsible for a decline in productivity as interstitial spaces that stream macroinvertebrates and trout eggs require are filled. There are also acute stressors such as manure spills or rapid runoff that increased biological oxygen demand (BOD), thus consuming oxygen faster that it can be replenished resulting in fish and invertebrate mortality. And we are starting to see increasing impacts of climate change, most notably increases in extreme precipitation events that are leading to some of the largest floods in recorded history. The solutions to these issues are largely political, relying upon economics and social aspects of management.


So far, I've written a bit about the main ideas of the definition - the biological, economic, and social aspects of fisheries management. Effective fisheries management also requires these to be sustainable. It seems that once the biological component is sustainable, the economic part largely falls into place. The social aspects are always "muddier" because, well, people.

A Driftless view
A view from above - a large part of why I fish is this view as much as it is the fish.

Our environmental quality is a compromise among a great many social and economic factors. In some ways, what environmental degradation we are willing to allow, to live with, is a reflection upon our society at any point in time. As a good example, the post-WWII economic boom came with environmental costs that lead to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1960's and 1970's. These pieces of environmental legislation came about mostly because people desired cleaner air and water bodies. It should be noted that environmental degradation does not come without social and economic costs. On the fisheries side of things, degradation likely means that self-sustaining fisheries can not be maintained. More importantly to most people, degradation comes with clean up costs, reduction of human health and life span, increases in illness, and decreases in tourism and recreation economies.

An exposed stream bank
In the Driftless, the largest source of sediment is from stream bank erosion.

As stated earlier, take care of the water quality and quantity and the habitat, then the fish will take care of themselves. If only biology was required to "take care of" the environment and fisheries, the answers would be pretty simple. We know how to reduce erosion and nutrient inputs to streams. We know that removing some of the cultural sediment from streambanks, the largest source of sediment into our Driftless streams, and allowing floods to access their floodplains is a key component. We know that having stringent regulations on manure storage, handling, and spreading reduce the likelihood of fish kills. We understand that buffers play an important role in not only preventing sediment and nutrients from reaching streams but they also provide the terrestrial insects that mid-summer trout streams are reliant upon. We even have some understanding of how and where climate change is most likely to impact streams (a post for another day).


What fisheries managers do not have is the ability to "go it alone". So it is up to those of us that care about the environment. And if you have read this far, I assume that means you. So what can you do? You can extol the economic importance that not just fishing has but a clean and healthy environment means economically. We are happier and healthier when we spend time outdoors. Our environment is a reflection upon us. If we want healthy, self-sustaining fisheries, we need a healthy and self-sustaining, self-healing environment. We do not achieve that and protect that without people being involved both on the ground and in the social/political realm.

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