Wildlife Department takes fresh look at ‘trash fish’

Surveys hit mailboxes of 15,000 randomly chosen Oklahoma anglers this month

Smallmouth buffalo are a long-lived native Oklahoma fish species categorized as “non-game” fish. (USFWS/Doug Canfield photo)
Note: An early version of this story contained an incorrect reference to paddlefish limits. It has been corrected.

For the CCOF

Postcard notices arriving in anglers’ mailboxes are about “trash fish” but are not junk mail, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation officials advised this week.

The bright green postcards, sent to 15,000 randomly selected fishing license holders, direct anglers to an online survey. Biologists said they wanted to learn more about anglers’ and bowfishers’ attitudes toward non-game fish species like drum, gar, or buffalo suckers (often incorrectly called “buffalo carp”), according to Betsey York, human dimensions specialist for the department.

These species have not received much attention in the past and few if any states have established regulations regarding so-called rough fish or trash fish, said Trevor Starks, stream biologist for the Wildlife Department and head of the department’s non-game fish rules committee.

Learning more about how anglers view the fish and pursue the fish will help guide future management decisions but Starks emphasized no rule changes are pending.

“We’re not doing this to arbitrarily make regulations because there are no regulations right now,” he said. “It is something that we’ve recognized we probably need to get ahead of and understand better so we can ensure that my kids, my grandkids, and Oklahomans into the future can sustainably participate in the sport.”

Bowfishers pursue the fish free of any bag limits where bowfishing is legal. Some anglers also still arbitrarily kill the fish because they are seen as competitors of game fish deemed more desirable. However, more rod-and-reel anglers, especially fly-fishers, are gaining an appreciation for the fish as challenging catch-and-release species, he said.

“That trash-fish stigma permeates still to this day,” Starks said. “I don’t think it was that long ago there were some links even on our own website that talked about fisheries management that referred to those species as ‘trash fish.’”

Not much is known

The native fish are a natural part of Oklahoma waters but biologists don’t know as much about them as other fish. That’s because most research funding is reserved for sport fish like bass or crappie, or threatened or endangered species, Starks said.

Information is especially lacking on how people pursue or use non-game species and how the overall populations can handle harvest pressure, he said.

York said the survey should give biologists general information about bowfishing and about people’s views of non-game fish. Specific information about the questions and methods will come out in a final report.

“Until it’s finished we want to make sure people aren’t going into it being biased about what might be on the survey before they fill it out, so we’re going to wait to share details,” she said.

The survey is based in social science and not an effort to solicit broad general public comments, she said. It is designed to target a random sample of anglers with questions that are non-biased as possible.

The cards contain instructions and a QR Code and website address anglers can use to reach the online survey. The first cards hit mailboxes this week and a second round of reminders will be sent soon, she said.

Boe Meehan holds the state-record 66-pound, 4-ounce state record bigmouth buffalo caught at Greenleaf Lake in May 2000. (ODWC/Courtesy)

“We have a rigorous review within the department and we have some pilot testers we use. We work hard on creating non-biased questions to gather general information about the sport and general information about the target species,” she said.

The non-game rules committee led by Starks is one of several groups organized by subject matter within the department to closely examine rules proposals. He said the committee is not looking to the survey with new regulations in mind but more out of a recognition they simply need to know more.

Bowfishing, angling questions differ

York did say questions early in the survey will ask if respondents are bowfishers or not, and that those answers will take them onto different question tracks that, for example, might ask what are barriers that prevent a person from bowfishing as opposed to how often they go bowfishing.

Biologists have increasingly taken note of bowfishing after the U.S. National Bowfishing Tournament brought hundreds of bowfishers to Tulsa in June 2018 and as more jackpot style tournaments spring up around the state annually, Starks said.

A 2019 survey showed roughly 30,000 Oklahomans (4 percent of well over 700,000 fishing license holders) practice bowfishing to at least some degree, according to York.

“It’s a sport that has really grown, especially in the past 10 years or so,” Starks said. “We know we have a lot of people who are fervent bowfishers.”

One regulation was proposed for 2021 that would have required all fish taken while bowfishing be kept until the angler stopped for the day, but pushback from bowfishers who said they often catch-and-release was mostly responsible the defeat of that idea, said Jason Schooley, a senior fisheries biologist with the department.

That question has given rise to a study of delayed mortality rates of rough fish after being arrowed, Schooley said.

Complaints from anglers and others who enjoy water sports spiked this summer when a kill of more than 1,000 gars by a single boat of bowfishers was publicized on Facebook. The four archers were fined for illegal disposal of the fish, which floated after being tossed back into the water. Bowfishers can generally catch or kill as many non-game fish as they want as long as they are disposed of properly.

“That incident wasn’t representative of bowfishing but I guess I would say it was eye-opening for a lot of people about the potential,” Starks said.

A natural comparison

Starks drew a parallel between the now highly prized prehistoric paddlefish in Oklahoma and the current situation with gar and buffalo.

Biologically, they all are long-lived native species with some aged 90 to 100 years or more. They are fish that successfully spawn only periodically as opposed to most game fish that don’t live as long and that actively spawn annually. The species also rely on the largest mature females for the majority of reproduction and those larger fish also are the ones most often targeted, Starks said.

“Old-timers in the department talk about the days when people caught paddlefish and there are images of pickup beds filled with those fish,” he said. “People found out how much fun they were to catch and then more people started catching them and it really grew in popularity and we learned more about those fish… Regulations were unpopular to start with but now it’s pretty well accepted that you can get one paddlefish and that sets things up so the sport will last into the future.”

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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