Golden Gophers Worried About Golden Shiners

Happy Fish Fry Day, everyone! Restaurants across Wisconsin are battering up bluegill, perch and walleye (and, yes, even cod) and featuring fish as the daily special and so are we. As we work our way across the epic and inspiring Fishes of Wisconsin poster, it’s time to reflect today on a species any self-respective angler is well familiar with – the golden shiner, a quality that has been known for quite some time. In 1931, Lewis Radcliffe, who was the Deputy Commissioner of the US Bureau of Fisheries (wouldn’t it be cool if we still had a U.S. Bureau of Fisheries?) called them, “one of the best forage fish and bait minnows

Distribution of golden shiners in America. Yellow/orange color indicates native range. Image: USGS

Nowadays you’re more likely to come across a golden shiner in a bait bucket than in the wild, but Notemigonus crysoleucas is native to basically the entire Eastern U.S. and is found anywhere there is still water and a little weed cover. Golden shiners travel in large schools called shoals and eat anything from insects to zooplankton to algae. Of course it’s what eats shiners that has made the fish so popular – in fact, demand for golden shiners as bait has made them not only one of the most popular bait fish in the U.S., but a pretty big deal in aquaculture. According to a delightfully titled report, “A Fish of Weedy Waters,” in the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, golden shiners account for about half of all bait fish sales. And 74% of those shiners are grown in Arkansas aquaculture ponds.
And that is where the title of the post finally makes sense. You see, Minnesota (official UM mascot the golden gopher) is currently locked in a big debate over the little golden shiner. Demand for the fish, especially to use as bait for walleye in winter ice fishing, far exceeds supply in Minnesota. Anglers and bait shops would love to tap into the Arkansas pipeline of bait fish. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources currently has a ban on out-of-state bait fish due to concerns over the movement of invasive species and disease. You see, golden shiners and baby carp are almost indistinguishable – especially when they’re mixed in a bucket of bait – and bait fish are a known vector of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS, a gruesome and deadly fish disease that’s has fisheries managers worried across the country.
A shoal of shiners on an Arkansas bait farm. Image: UA Extension

But, argue Minnesota bait shops, supply regularly can’t meet demand and licensed bait fish dealers should be a safe avenue. While we agree there are safe ways to get bait, we also acknowledge that it’s really hard to know what you’re getting – or, as Minnesota DNR fisheries chief, Don Pereira, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “there’s diseases and pathogens we don’t even know about yet.”
You can read more about the debate and about current bills by the Minnesota lawmakers to overturn the MDNR’s ban in this excellent piece in the Star Tribune. And, if you are an entrepreneur in Minnesota, maybe it’s time to start a shiner  farm?

Golden shiner photo courtesy of Marilyn Larsen.