Eelpout population seems to be in decline
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The eelpout or burbot, that beady-eyed freshwater cod widely known as the "ish of fish" for its unsightly appearance, doesn't get a lot of attention, but fisheries managers in Minnesota and North Dakota say the species is in decline.
"It's almost more of an anecdotal thing," said Tom Heinrich, Large Lake specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Baudette. "They're not all that vulnerable to gillnets, which are our primary lake assessment gear. Most of the information is based on what you see on the ice.
"People just aren't catching nearly the 'pout they used to," Heinrich said.
It likely will be short-lived, but eelpout have been back in the spotlight since Aaron Guthrie of Bemidji landed a 19.54-pound specimen Feb. 24 on Lake of the Woods near Long Point. The behemoth burbot was weighed on a certified scale, and its confirmation as a new Minnesota state record appears to be just a formality.
The previous record eelpout, which weighed 19 pounds, 3 ounces, also came from Lake of the Woods in 2001.
Few fish have more monikers than the eelpout. Burbot or ling in North Dakota, maria in Canada and lawyer in numerous locations -- we'll let you draw your own conclusions on that one -- eelpout prefer cold water and are most active in the winter.
They're also the only freshwater fish to spawn under the ice.
That preference for cold water could explain the species' decline, Heinrich and other fisheries managers say. Summers have been getting warmer, on average, and higher water temperatures could be stressing the fish.
That's especially true for traditional eelpout hotspots such as Lake of the Woods and the main basin of Leech Lake - large, windswept bodies of water that don't have a thermocline, or coldwater refuge, during the summer months.
In such lakes, water temperatures are the same from top to bottom. When the water gets too warm, eelpout basically go dormant, Heinrich said, subsisting on food energy stored in their huge livers.
"They're using up energy and not accumulating anything," he said. "When that happens, and summers get longer and longer, that really stresses them out.
"They really are kind of a coldwater animal."
If there's a place where the eelpout takes center stage - if only for one weekend a year - it's the International Eelpout Festival in Walker. Started in 1980, the annual festival in late February draws thousands of pout seekers to Leech Lake.
Organizers keep track of fish brought to the scale during the festival. Since the mid-'90s, catch rates have been on a gradual decline. DNR fisheries managers on Leech Lake have noticed a similar trend. The caveat, though, is that sampling gear doesn't target the wriggly, slippery fish very well.
"We just don't know enough about sampling them effectively," said Doug Schultz, DNR Large Lake specialist in Walker. "It's really hard to manage for them because you don't catch them very effectively - that's what it boils down to. It's tough to know much about a population if you don't handle enough of them."
Despite the decline in catch rates, Schultz said the average size of pout recorded during the Eelpout Festival has remained relatively stable. That suggests overharvest isn't a factor. If it was, Schultz said, the average size would be declining, as well. Anglers would be keeping smaller fish, because older, larger pout wouldn't be available, he said.
That puts the focus back on warmer water temperatures, which have impacted other coldwater species such as white suckers and ciscoes.
"With the summer kill events we've had for other species - ciscoes especially - the past 10 years, that's a pretty reasonable theory," Schultz said.
Again, it's only anecdotal, but on Lake of the Woods, Heinrich says cool summers the past few years might have triggered a modest turnaround in pout populations. He bases that observation on fish he's seen this winter on the big lake, where a creel survey has been under way since December.
"All of this is more touchy-feely than hard science," Heinrich said. "Just looking at things, you notice what's going on. Part of that might just be that I was on the ice a bit more this year."
One thing that has changed is anglers are discarding fewer eelpout on the ice. Conservation officers have cracked down on the illegal practice, but more anglers are finding out that eelpout are excellent table fare. The meat has a firm texture and is widely known as "poor man's lobster."
"I'm hearing from a lot more people that like to catch and eat them," Heinrich said. "It's kind of the old deal where you never know the value of your well until it runs dry."
In North Dakota, where no one calls them eelpout, burbot are limited to the Missouri River System and, to a lesser, extent, the Red River.
By any name, though, the trend's the same.
"We're a bit concerned," said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "It's hard to monitor, because they're not like a lot of other fish species."
Power said Game and Fish biologists most frequently catch burbot in the spring when trapping walleye and pike to collect eggs for stocking programs.
"Anecdotally, our numbers seem to be declining most years," Power said.
North Dakota, which unlike Minnesota classifies the burbot as a game fish, is at the cutting edge of producing burbot in captivity, thanks to a program initiated a half-dozen years ago at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery.
According to Rob Holm, project leader at the federal hatchery, die-hard burbot anglers initially captured fish by hook-and-line for the program, and hatchery staff produced the first batch of burbot fry in 2006.
The program, Holm said, was established to try to develop techniques for hatching the fish. Keeping the eggs in near-freezing water during incubation is the key, he said, and the hatchery now has sexually-mature burbot from the 2006 hatch.
There's no demand for hatchery-raised burbot, Holm said, but that could change if populations continue to decline.
"If there was a need out there, I think we'd be in pretty good shape to help them out," Holm said. "That's what it's all about."
In the meantime, fisheries managers are taking a wait-and-see approach, which is about the best they can do, given the species' reclusive nature.
"When we look at managing fish, normally we're not looking at burbot because there's not that huge of an amount of angler interest in them," the DNR's Heinrich said. "By and large, there's probably not a lot you can do to manage those things, especially if the big factor that dictates whether you have a population is whether you have cool summers.
"If you maintain good habitat for fish in general, you should be able to maintain good habitat for burbot. That's probably the way we (will continue) to manage it."