STAPLES, Minn. — Some Minnesota anglers could be skunked before they even hit the water for this weekend’s fishing opener with live bait supplies limited.
Bait producer Barry Thoele, of Staples, blames record breaking winter kill as a major factor hurting bait supplies this spring. But the demise of the bait industry has been coming for years as minnow populations continue to shrink in the wild and in conventional farming practices that require overwintering in outdoor ponds, he added.
Recent projections by bait dealers estimate a deficit of approximately 10,000 gallons of golden shiners annually in Minnesota. The golden shiner is a go-to bait for many walleye anglers, even as prices hang out around $1 per minnow.
Thoele said it’s up to Minnesota aquaculture to fill the needs to save the state’s fishing tourism, where wild harvest is coming short. That’s why he’s participating in a new golden shiner research project led by the Minnesota Sea Grant at the University of Minnesota.
As someone who’s been harvesting and selling bait for over 35 years, Thoele is opposed to talk of importing the minnows from other states, a common practice in other places but illegal in Minnesota. Arkansas is the top producer of farmed baitfish and provides bait to much of the country.
“There is pressure from anglers, bait dealers and legislators to import golden shiner from other states, though this is currently prohibited by law in Minnesota,” said Don Schreiner, Minnesota Sea Grant fisheries specialist and golden shiner project member. “The primary concerns are that importation can introduce aquatic invasive species, disease and parasites that may harm native fish communities.”
Farming the fish right here in Minnesota is the answer, according to Thoele.
“Reality is, this is Minnesota, ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes,’” Thoele said. “You’re telling me we can’t grow the baitfish we need in this state? I think we need to start looking at the science.”
As part of the golden shiner project, Thoele will grow golden shiners right alongside his hydroponics system that grows lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and hot peppers in central Minnesota.
“I’m not doing this for the money,” Thoele said — though there’s money to be made, with shiners fetching around $100 a gallon for producers. “I’m doing this because we need to fix this problem, and importing potentially more invasives doesn’t work.”
Schreiner said baitfish farming has an opportunity to do more than rescue the fishing industry — it could be a big boost to rural Minnesota for those that want to learn how to successfully produce the fish to sell to bait dealers.
The 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture Aquaculture Census reported that golden shiners were the most valuable baitfish produced in the U.S. with $16.4 million in total sales and more than 3.9 million pounds sold.
“These golden shiners would be very lucrative for them,” Schreiner said. He said it wouldn’t be unheard of to get $20 a pound for the shiners without any processing involved.
“We are getting a lot of calls from people, even though we’ve only been at this for a year,” Schreiner said of the project interest.
As someone who has spent his life working to protect the state’s fisheries, he appreciates that this project seeks to avoid introducing outside invasives.
“The last thing I want to see is us import bait for short term gain and then introduce invasive species or some sort of disease,” he said.
Rearing the bait on the farm may be more expensive for the angler, but it could be a boost to the aquaculture industry and provide more stability in bait availability. The costs of these indoor rearing strategies are not yet fully realized. Schreiner said it’s estimated that Minnesota’s aquaculture industry is currently worth about $5 million, yet the value of recreational fishing in the state is worth $2.3 billion.
Thoele is one partner working with project leaders Schreiner and Amy Schrank, fisheries and aquaculture Extension educator, Minnesota Sea Grant, University of Minnesota and University of Minnesota Duluth. They are working on several grow-out strategies to see what will work best and can be easily replicated.
The project is supported by a three-year $188,000 grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. They started in 2021 and hope to have a shareable plan in hand showing its success following the end of the grant period in June 2024.
How it works
The minnow cycle begins with Mark Tye, owner of Tye Fish Solutions, who is spawning the shiners at his indoor location in Le Seuer, Minnesota. The larval minnows are delivered by Tye to Thoele, who is going to grow the minnows to maturity in tanks and ponds.
Tye looks at fish farming much like a cattle or hog operation, where an animal is raised to a certain size and moved to another facility for grow-out.
Tye spawns the minnows then feed trains them so they can survive life being fed man-made food as opposed to spending their life foraging for zooplankton. Getting them trained with feed is key in survival and efficient growth for those who want fish to reach maturity in one grow season.
“So in nature they eat zooplankton, and you can’t really culture that on a large scale, and it’s not economically efficient to feed them zooplankton in a tank. So to train them onto the feed is somewhat complex,” Tye said.
In nature, in Minnesota, the fish can only spawn during June or July when water temperatures are between 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Tye can maintain that temperature year round indoors, meaning anytime someone wants fry, he can make it happen if he has capacity.
Thoele will have his unique indoor grow-out and Tye will also grow some indoors. Minnows have also gone to the aquaponics program at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Thoele has been growing minnows for wholesale since 1992 for his business Lincoln Bait LLC. He’s now added a hydroponic greenhouse where he grows 400 heads of romaine lettuce per week. He has 13 ponds on the property and will soon have his raceway running for spawning red-tailed chubs and common shiners.
He showed off two new minnow tanks that he planned to have enclosed inside a greenhouse this spring. He believes the setup will allow him to start growing shiners early next spring with fish of about 3.5 inches ready for market by late summer or fall.
Tye was able to reach marketable size over an eight-month period in his setup.
“The industry needs help and we need to be able to transition into the 21st century,” Thoele said.
He hopes the project will come up with a farm technique that will not be expensive to get into and will be profitable for producers. Tye believes this project will offer proof that indoor aquaculture can be done and can help solve bait industry woes.
“Nobody’s really done this before; it’s really a pilot project,” Schreiner said.
Schreiner said the project is showing some successes with two more growing seasons to go before the window closes on the grant. He’s pleased to see they’ve had survival in all four techniques they’ve tried, and they’ve seen the baitfish grow to a marketable size in about seven months. In an external system, the baitfish take two years to reach maturity.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Schreiner said of the success of the project. ”I’d love to see this work.”