Karen Alofs, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has discovered an alarming trend that could have implications for Minnesota anglers; as air and water temperatures warm in chilly northern Ontario, three bass species have begun moving into previously uninhabitable lakes and are wreaking havoc on sport fish and smaller fish on which they feed.
Alofs used data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Royal Ontario Museum dating back to the 1950s and studied 1,550 lakes to better understand species vulnerability to climate change-related ecological shifts. What she found is that largemouth, smallmouth and rock bass, three warm water southern Ontario species, are heading north at the rate of 17.5 kilometers (about 10.5 miles) each decade. She also found that brown bullheads, pumpkinseed sunfish and bluegill have joined them in colonizing new, northern waterbodies.
Her study concluded that the impact on sport fish and their native prey has been significant. Populations of redbelly dace, fathead minnows and other bait fish plunged when bass were introduced to their habit. The bass heading north at the fastest pace are smallmouth and once they get established, other fish simply cannot compete with them. Similar research is being done across the northern tier states of the United States and results are also showing a growing number of bass in American waters.
Anglers across Canada and United States love to fish smallmouth bass. It would be hard to find anyone who would view increased smallmouth bass numbers as a bad thing, but there is a potential downside to this growth. In Ontario, the smallmouth bass are squeezing native sports fish like brook trout out of some of the cold Canadian waters. Additionally, research is currently being conducted on Canadian and American waters to see what impact the expansion of bass is having on sport fish like walleye, muskies, and northern pike.
Many researchers are suggesting that as our water and air warms our lake environments will not be cold enough to maintain our current cold water sport fish. Some studies suggest that the surviving species will indeed be the smallmouth, largemouth and sunfish species. One of the really important questions regarding this trend is what will happen to the sport fishing industry in both Canada and America if this happens. Smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing is about as much fun as fishing can be but most bass anglers frown on eating them so what will that mean for folks who like to eat fish?
I don’t know the answers to these complex questions but I do know that in my life time smallmouth and largemouth fishing on two of my favorite lakes, Mille Lacs and Leech Lake, has never been better. I can’t believe the size of the fish or the numbers caught.
It is a very exciting time to be a bass angler right now but it is also very scary time not knowing what the long term impact of this bass invasion will be on our fisheries!