Rainbow Trout Genetics and Future Management in Lake Superior

As some of you may know, Minnesota Steelheader (MNST)  has the privilege of serving on the Lake Superior Advisory Group (LSAG).  In a nutshell, the role of the LSAG is to review, discuss, advise and revise (as needed) the MNDNR Rainbow Trout Management Plan every 10 years.  The advisory group is comprised of a variety of fishery stakeholders that include organizations, business owners, government agencies, commercial fisherman, and tribal bands to name a few.

The advisory group was called together last fall by the Lake Superior Fisheries office to listen and discuss the findings of the Rainbow Trout genetic work that Dr. Loren Miller, Fisheries Geneticist at the University of Minnesota has been conducting as part of the Steelhead Genetics Project (SGP).  I wont go into the details of the Steelhead Genetics Project or the finding from that meeting,  you can find a ton of information on that here.

As representatives on the Lake Superior Advisory Group (LSAG), we are asked to provide responses to a series of questions outlined by the MNDNR.  All representing stakeholders serving on the LSAG are asked to do this.  The questions asked for this issue are aimed at helping to understand what management direction stakeholders think will be best for Minnesota's portion of the Lake Superior fishery.  The questions were based on the results found in the ongoing Steelhead Genetics Project.

MNST was an instrumental partner in the implementation of the Steelhead Genetics Project, and still are very much involved. We continue to supplement volunteers with scale sampling kits, recently installed a second scale sample collection box along the upper shore, provide project updates to anglers during clinics, on our website, via social outreach, and we are a go-to online resource of SGP research papers, fact sheets, and scientific findings.  

Though the findings of kamloops and Steelhead introgression is unsettling, we are still excited to continue our part in helping to discover and learn more about our Steelhead and overall North Shore fishery.

Today we want to share with you what those questions were that the DNR asked the LSAG, and the position MNST has taken.  

The management of MN waters of Lake Superior and her tributaries is a massive undertaking.  We appreciate all the hard work that the Lake Superior DNR office and Dr. Miller are doing.  We also appreciate all the anglers and advocates working to make a difference.  Hats off to you.

Issue: MNDNR Rainbow Trout Genetics and Management Questions and Responses

1.   Whether Kamloops and steelhead can spawn together and hybridize in the wild has been a question the Lake Superior Advisory Group has had for over 20 years.  The results of the recent genetic testing confirms that not only is genetic introgression occurring, but it is widespread geographically, including other jurisdictions.  How does your group feel about these findings?

This is a concern not only for Minnesota’s steelhead program, but has a potentially widespread long term negative impact on to the health of the naturalized LS steelhead population and surrounding fisheries programs across the other Great Lakes. The genetic progression modeling makes it almost certain that introgression spells eventual extinction of the naturalized Lake Superior steelhead.  
We support the Great Lakes Fishery Commissions Joint Strategic Plan which notes that Minnesota is obligated to ensure its fisheries management strategies do not negatively impact other jurisdictions.  Regardless of how we or other groups feel, the DNR has an obligation to suspend all kamloops stocking of Lake Superior waters and tributaries.

2.   Previous studies concluded the probability of Kamloops being produced in the wild was low.  These recent findings confirm that “pure” Kamloops (offspring of two Kamloops parents) have been produced in the wild and they can survive to adult which are visually indistinguishable from steelhead. How does your group feel about these findings?

We have great concern with the unsettling findings. If Kamloops cannot be distinguished from steelhead short of genetic testing, it significantly narrows management options targeted for example at streams where genetic KAM presence is high. It places all programs in jeopardy with respect to: competition for available resources (food, spawning and rearing habitat etc.), and the likelihood that genetic introgression will accelerate over time reducing the fitness of fish in all programs.

This also presents significant political and socio-economic issues for the overall recovery/management of steelhead and kamloops, a fact to which Minnesota Steelheader is keenly aware.

3.   Given the options presented, which option does your group feel is the best and most responsible option moving forward? Why?

a.   Option #1: “No Change in Management” – Rainbow Trout management proceeds as outlined in the 2016 Fishery Management Plan for the Minnesota Waters of Lake Superior. Steelhead fry and clipped Kamloops stocking continues.

b.   Option #2: “Wait-and-See” – Cease Rainbow Trout stocking (Kamloops and steelhead fry stocking), evaluate natural reproduction and recruitment of steelhead, identify those streams whose runs have been primarily supported by steelhead fry stocking, reconsider steelhead harvest/stocking options during next management plan revision process starting in December 2024, or sooner if needed.

c.    Option #3: “Limited Wild Steelhead Harvest” – Cease Kamloops stocking, continue steelhead fry stocking, and open a limited harvest of wild steelhead (e.g., 1-over-28”, only certain rivers).

d.   Option #4: “Alternative Hatchery Product for Harvest” – Cease Kamloops and steelhead fry stocking; replace with a genetically-screened, adipose-clipped, pre-smolt steelhead stocked for harvest.

Of all the options presented, a variation of option #3 may be a viable direction, though we are not supportive of rushing into a harvest option or widespread fry stocking without further discussion. Based on the original recovery plan as well as the management plan, one or more thresholds/triggers for cessation of Kamloops stocking have been met; by definition, kamloops stocking should cease. This raises a number of political and socio-economic as well as option and program funding questions that will have to be studied regardless of any agreed upon approach.

Minnesota Steelheader recognizes and understands that whatever option or methodology is selected, there will be unhappy stakeholders who are proponents of steelhead, Kamloops or both. We also recognize that there are significant political hurdles to overcome regardless, and that program costs, location of hatcheries, State revenue/funding streams and limiting factors related to habitat, competition, forage biomass, water chemistry etc. all play a large role in determining future direction.

Given the complexity of the issues at hand, Minnesota Steelheader appreciates a place at the table.  While we clearly favor options which focus on continued revitalization of our naturalized steelhead population, we will be supportive of Minnesota DNR Fisheries and respect decisions that are made.

4.   Are there other Rainbow Trout management options your group feels would be worth investigating?

Short of the possibility of managing specific streams for harvest where genetic introgression is high to reduce or eliminate said introgression potential while future program is being determined, no. This possibility would also present a number of problems from the management and enforcement perspective.

5.  Would your group like to share any additional questions, comments, or concerns?

In an effort to better understand the positions of North Shore Anglers, Minnesota Steelheader recently conducted a 10 question angler survey.  Just a few over 250 anglers participated in the survey.  It was available to all and promoted via our website, blog, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  All participants are anonymous to us.  We have attached the results with our responses and hope you find the data useful.

Again, we appreciate being given a place at the table and will look forward to working towards the common goal of a healthy and abundant naturalized North Shore steelhead population.

I addition to our issue responses, MNST went the extra mile and conducted an angler survey to better understand how John and Jane Doe angler think.  You can still contribute to the survey HERETake our North Shore Fishing Experience Survey.


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