BISMARCK — Whether it’s collecting pike and walleye eggs for hatcheries or stocking fish, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating challenges for fisheries managers in North Dakota and Minnesota as they struggle to do their jobs safely and follow the 6-foot social distancing guideline recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, nature’s clock is ticking, and it won’t wait.

“It’s not business as usual, that’s a fact,” said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “We are planning and replanning and planning again and contingency planning (for) every scenario.”

Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)
Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

The outlook in Minnesota is even less certain, where plans for spring fisheries work are “evolving,” said Dave Olfelt, director of the Department of Natural Resources’ Fish and Wildlife Division. The challenge, Olfelt said, is ensuring any actions taken by the DNR follow the “stay at home” executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz.

Most DNR employees now are working from home, and agency administrators continue to explore how to safely conduct work such as collecting walleye eggs to meet the state’s stocking needs, Olfelt said.

“We're not simply thinking about how to do the work safely while keeping social distance,” Olfelt said. “We’re also layering on what was allowed under that executive order and what things were not.”

The department’s four coldwater hatcheries used to raise trout are still in operation, he said.

“That’s an example of something where we have this huge investment in live fish that we don’t want to lose by not staffing the hatchery,” Olfelt said.

Before COVID-19 put life on hold, the DNR was hoping to collect 540 million walleye eggs from 12 sites across the state, Olfelt said, enough eggs to produce 280 million walleye fry.

As for now, the DNR is “working toward a decision” on how it will collect walleye eggs this spring, Olfelt said.

“We haven’t figured out how to use trap nets and social distance so we have to come up with different ways of grabbing the fish,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to roll out, and it starts in the south and works its way north.”

Dave Olfelt, Fish and Wildlife Division director, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (Minnesota DNR photo)
Dave Olfelt, Fish and Wildlife Division director, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (Minnesota DNR photo)

Sense of urgency

In North Dakota, there’s a sense of urgency among fisheries managers because northern pike and walleyes will begin spawning in the next few weeks, Power, the fisheries chief, said.

That will happen regardless of the pandemic, he says. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department this spring has a goal of collecting enough eggs to produce 11.5 million walleye fry and 1.5 million northern pike fry at the hatcheries.

In a good year, that is achievable, he said, but it would require “lots of work” by both Game and Fish staff and personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the two national fish hatcheries in North Dakota at Garrison Dam and Valley City.

Pike spawn first, and that could happen within the next week to 10 days, Power said. Walleyes in North Dakota typically spawn in late April and early May. The plan this year is to collect all of the pike eggs on Lake Oahe and walleye eggs in the Van Hook Arm and Parshall Bay areas of Lake Sakakawea, Power said.

“Two weeks from now, I’d think we’d be close to done” collecting pike eggs, Power said Monday, March 30. “Pike aren’t nearly as critical as the walleye because we should have some very good natural spawning conditions. If we come up short there, it won’t be as critical. Walleye is right up there with our highest requests.”

The social distancing guidelines to prevent potential spread of the coronavirus is less of an issue for shop personnel working to gather and prepare the gear for the upcoming egg take, Power said.

“The shops are pretty big so two-three-four guys can work in there and have social distancing,” he said.

Safety precautions

This year, Power says, fisheries crews working the egg take will wear homemade masks, and personnel who milk the eggs and milt while working in close quarters on makeshift “spawning benches” will wear clear face shields. In addition, fisheries personnel will travel to the collection sites in separate vehicles.

The masks, while a far cry from the N95 masks that provide the highest level of protection, “are simply a crude but additional line of defense,” Power said.

Russ Kinzler, Missouri River System biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Riverdale, N.D., models a mask that fisheries crews will be wearing during this spring's egg takes for pike and walleyes. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Russ Kinzler, Missouri River System biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Riverdale, N.D., models a mask that fisheries crews will be wearing during this spring's egg takes for pike and walleyes. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

“It’s a dirty job that those guys do between the mud and the muck and the fish slime and fish eggs,” he said. “We’re just going to have to take our time, slow up a little bit. We’re trying to do some things with the benches so we can minimize their actions and get the job done.”

The other spring priority, Power says, is collecting perch from a handful of lakes and transplanting them in other lakes. Several lakes across the region are in line to receive 100 pounds to 200 pounds of perch, he said.

High water on many North Dakota lakes now offers prime conditions for producing perch, Power said. As with collecting pike and walleye eggs, time is of the essence because perch are most accessible to trap nets in the spring, when they’re in shallow water spawning.

Ideally, Power said, some two dozen new lakes will be stocked with perch and another 10 to 20 lakes could use additional perch.

“The two things we’ve got to get done are the spawning and then the perch, particularly this year,” Power said. “We just need to get 100 to 200 pounds of them into a lot of new lakes, and now with the lake conditions, there’s such a great opportunity that can pay off over the next three to six years.”

Other planned fisheries work, such as tagging pike, walleyes and paddlefish might be put on hold, he said.

“They’re not nearly the priority, and we will either probably scuttle some of that stuff or if we do it, we’re going to quickly change our methodology,” Power said. “It won’t be nearly as efficient, but we need to put ourselves first.”

Electrofishing on hold

In Minnesota, the DNR’s Olfelt said annual spring electrofishing on the Rainy River, a technique used to sample the abundance of spawning walleyes, is on hold during the governor’s stay at home order.

In addition, the DNR has decided not to conduct prescribed burns to enhance wildlife habitat this spring, Olfelt said.

Part of it is to avoid taxing first responders should a fire get out of control, he said; the other part is to avoid the potential impact of adding smoke to the air when tens of thousands of Minnesotans already have compromised breathing because of the coronavirus.

For now, he said, the DNR is striving to do the best it can during a time of unprecedented challenges.

“We understand how important the work we do is to many, many Minnesotans,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are really concerned and care about things like walleye egg take and trout stocking. We take that really seriously, too, along with the work that people have been doing the last few weeks just to try to wrestle with all of these things while maintaining our mission.”