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Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission delays vote on rules to restrict bowfishing, protect native non-game fish 

A fish with a long snout and speckled green body swims towards the camera in a dark environment.
Solomon David
Alligator gars are among Oklahoma's native non-game fish.

The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission has delayed a vote on proposed fishing rules changes after fervent discussion at its meeting last week.

One rule would limit how many native non-game fish a bowfisher could catch to 10 per day. Another would prohibit “shoot and release” fishing, in which fish are speared or shot with arrows and then returned to the water.

According to Ken Cunningham, chief of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC)’s Fisheries Division, the department received thousands of comments — both positive and negative — on the proposed rules.

Cunningham said the proposed rules received “quite a bit of support” during the public comment period, which ended in December. Commissioner Jess Kane said officials from the Muscogee and Choctaw Nations wrote letters of support. But the four people who spoke just before the commission’s scheduled vote all opposed the new rules.

“You’re going to kill that sport,” said Randy Woodward, who organizes bowfishing tournaments for children and women. He says those events draw people and tourism money to Oklahoma’s lakes, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize that without more information.

“If you do scientific data, that's the thing,” Woodward said. “Let's do that first and then do limits.”

But, researchers say their data already show these fish – like gar and buffalo fish – play important roles in their ecosystem. And they require different management than other species because of their life cycles.

“It's really not so much about value; it's about the behavior of the fish,” Cunningham said. “These native non-game species are episodic spawners. They're long-lived. A completely different life history than, say, a crappie or a bass. So we manage them differently.”

Jason Schooley, a biologist with the ODWC who helped develop the proposed rules, said the restrictions would help the department gather more data before these fish populations are potentially depleted.

“We would start to look on more of a population-level and determine where our species are doing well, and where do they need help,” Schooley said. “And then we would sort of drill down and say, okay, this aggregate bag limit no longer fills the particular role that it was designed to fill.”

But while rule makers wait for more data, Schooley said it’s important to maintain native non-game fish populations.

“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.”

In response to pushback, the ODWC has considered exempting bowfishing tournaments from the proposed limits. They’ve also considered increasing the aggregate limit to 20 native non-game fish. But Commissioner James Barwick said bowfishers don’t seem satisfied with those concessions.

Woodward and others expressed concerns that the commission has a vendetta against bowfishing. Cunningham said that’s not the case.

“The Fisheries Division is not out to shut down bowfishermen or bowfishing tournaments,” Cunningham said. “All we're trying to do is make sure that these populations are managed in a sustainable way.”

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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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