A bill that would allow paddlefish tags to be issued by lottery has passed both the North Dakota House and Senate. The paddlefish bill passed 88-6 in the House and 47-0 in the Senate. The Senate version was amended, so the bill must return to the House for final approval, which is expected.
The paddlefish bill is supported by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. The bill would allow Game and Fish to implement a lottery system for fishermen to obtain paddlefish tags. Under current regulations an unlimited number of paddlefish snagging tags are purchased over-the-counter and the season is shut down when Game and Fish determines further snagging would jeopardize the resource. The season quota is generally considered 1,000 fish.
"It is supply and demand in its simplest form. The demand is growing," said Greg Power, NDG&F fisheries division chief. "We're at roughly 3,500 tags a year. The supply part is not growing in the right direction. There is a 1,000 fish cap now. We have no plans to change it now, but if it happens it will be a reduction, not an increase."
Paddlefish snagging annually creates crowded shorelines in North Dakota as the endeavor continues to grow in popularity. A bill recently passed by both the North Dakota House and Senate may soon change how paddlefishing is conducted.
Paddlefish are one of the most unique fish in North America. They are slow growers. Males don't reach the reproductive stage until about age 10, females 12-14 years of age. Natural reproduction is rare, usually occurring in meaningful numbers only during years of very high flows on the Missouri or Yellowstone river systems. Artificial stocking is necessary to augment survival of the species.
"Thank God for the 1995 year class of paddlefish," said Power. "Over half of the males snagged recently were from that one year class. The females are just getting recruited into the population. A lot more young females are being taken. 2011 was a year of high flows and has the possibility of also being a good year class. The problem is, we won't know for sure for another 10 years until they start showing up."
It is not an easy task to monitor North Dakota's paddlefish population. Immature paddlefish are believed to live in Lake Sakakawea until reaching breeding age. It is only then that nature calls them to move upstream to spawn. The annual gathering, if flows permit, is when biologists attempt to learn more about paddlefish survival and populations.
Paddlefish snagging in North Dakota takes place near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Fishermen use heavy weights, large hooks and stout fishing rods to hook into the prehistoric fish. The limit is one fish per season. A snagged fish must be tagged regardless of size.
Some days are set aside for snag and release, giving fishermen an opportunity to participate in the annual ritual without depleting the resource. According to Power, if a lottery system is imposed, fishermen without paddlefish tags may still have the opportunity to participate.
"There will be nothing different this spring. It will be the same as the last 10 years," explained Power. "Changes to a lottery system could come in 2014. We would still incorporate snag-and-release only. That would allow people who do not draw a tag to still go every year. We want people to go out and enjoy it."
A lottery system is expected to help lessen the early-season crunch at coveted riverbanks where paddlefish snagging success is high. Under the current system fishermen know they must get their paddlefish early before the quota is approached and the season shut down. Sometimes that meant fishermen en route to a planned paddlefish excursion had to be turned away. Under the new proposal they would still be allowed to fish but not allowed to keep their catch.
House Bill 1141
House Bill 1141 passed the House but ran aground in the Senate and has been scuttled. The bill would have allowed those age 16 or over to windsurf or boardsail without a life jacket and would have allowed watercraft equipped with mirrors to pull tubers, skiers and wakeboarders without having an observer on board. Current regulations require "three to ski," meaning a watercraft operator and observer is required.
"I think it is a very good thing that the bill failed to pass, especially the safety aspect," said Nancy Boldt, NDG&F boat and water safety coordinator. "We need to keep our waters as safe as we can. There are issues with mirrors. I just don't believe people can keep an eye on what's behind them and still be in control. Within seconds today's boats travel a great distance across the water."
A problem with the proposed legislation, according to Boldt, is that persons being pulled on skis or tubes often swing outside of the view of mirrors on watercraft. In addition, a watercraft operator watching a mirror would be necessarily paying less attention to his or her front.
"We have a lot more boats today and a lot more congestion," noted Boldt. "Watercraft operators need to watch to the front for swimmers, fishermen and other boats or jet skis."