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Proposed rules aim to reshape how Oklahomans value native fish

 Smallmouth buffalo are one of Oklahoma's native nongame fish.
Sam Stukel
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Smallmouth buffalo are one of Oklahoma's native nongame fish species.

Some fish get all the attention. Species prized by anglers — like bass, trout and crappie — are often closely regulated to make sure they aren’t overfished. Now, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has proposed rules to protect the native species that haven’t been invited to sit at the cool fish table.

These species, like gars and buffalofish, get lumped together as “nongame fishes.” Jason Schooley, a biologist with the ODWC, said some people bestow even less flattering labels on them, like “rough fish” or “trash fish.”

“One of the consequences of that is that they've received very little management attention, nearly no funding and very little research until the last decade or so,” Schooley said.

Recently, more scientists have begun studying native nongame fishes. They’ve found that these species are crucial, especially as human activities change freshwater ecosystems. Many of them are predators that maintain balance. They also provide food for other fish, including those prized game species. They’re hosts for freshwater mussels. And most of them live long lives — new research shows some buffalofish can live up to 100 years.

“These are important components to biodiversity and our overall health of the ecosystem,” said Solomon David, who studies native fish at the University of Minnesota.

David collaborates with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife on its online Gar Week event, which has helped an indoorsy crowd learn about and appreciate native fish.

But in more than 40 states, including Oklahoma, there’s no limit on how many native nongame fish you can harvest in a day. And in Oklahoma, anglers are allowed to shoot them with a bow and arrow, then toss them back in the water.

David said people are often appalled when he tells them about shoot-and-release bow fishing.

“They can't believe that this is legal, where we're just wasting native species like this and putting them into dumpsters or throwing them into landfills,” he said. “If you're not an angler, you may not know that this is even going on.”

Based on research from native fish experts across the country, Schooley helped develop new rules, which would limit each angler to 10 native nongame fish per day. The proposed regulations would also prohibit shoot-and-release for these species, so bowfishing catches would count towards that limit.

Up until now, anglers have been setting their own benchmarks for a successful fishing trip. But while a few individuals harvest a ton of native fish, most anglers don’t actually take very many.

Schooley needed to make sure the proposed bag limit wouldn’t inadvertently encourage people to take more fish. Think about it like telling a guy to go pick potatoes, he said. He might feel satisfied after picking 5 pounds. But if you hand him a 10-pound sack, he’ll see filling it as a goal.

“We cannot leave it up to the angler to make the determination whether or not 10 pounds of potatoes or ten fish is ethically right or sustainable,” Schooley said. “We have the responsibility to make the decision how big that sack needs to be.”

But bowfishers, fret not.

“If someone wants to go bow fishing and they do it because of the fast-paced, high-harvest action, then they can target all of the invasive carp they want,” Schooley said. “They're going to be doing an ecological service to the waters of Oklahoma rather than killing our native resources.”

Schooley acknowledged it could be hard to enforce rule prohibiting shoot-and-release, since the evidence gets dumped back into the river. But it’s about more than just enforcement.

“The key to this is the social message,” Schooley said. “These fish are worth more swimming in the environment than they are being used as target practice and then discarded.”

If they’re finalized, the proposed rules could put Oklahoma at the forefront of native nongame fish conservation.

“Oklahoma has a chance to lead here,” David said.

The proposed rules are up for discussion tonight at the ODWC’s office in Oklahoma City. The agency is accepting online comments through tomorrow, Dec. 8.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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