Published January 05, 2008, 12:00 AM

New fish packing rule comes as surprise

A new Minnesota rule governing licensed fish packers appears to have taken some license holders by surprise.

By: By Brad Dokken, Herald Staff Writer

A new Minnesota rule governing licensed fish packers appears to have taken some license holders by surprise.

Under regulations that took effect in mid-December, licensed packers handling fish from bodies of water with size restrictions must include the name of the lake or river where the fish were caught, along with the length of each fish regulated under the size limit, on the label for each package.

Previously, packers didn't have to include the length of each individual fish on the label.

The impact of the rule change is perhaps most apparent on Lake of the Woods, which has a 19½- to 28-inch protected walleye slot that requires anglers to release all fish in that size range.

According to Roy Johannes, commercial fisheries program consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul, the state issued 133 fish packing licenses last year. Any Minnesota resident can buy a packing license, which costs $40 annually and allows the license holder to package fish for transport without the patch of skin required for everyone else.

The DNR issued about 25 packing licenses in the Lake of the Woods area, most of them being to resort owners who use the licenses to package fish for their paying guests.

A handful of license holders contacted by the Herald, including two of the largest resorts on the lake, said they hadn't received any information about the law change when it took effect.

“I heard about it, but no, I haven't really gotten any information,” said Deanna Painovich, who with her husband, Nick, owns Zippel Bay Resort north of Williams, Minn. “Somebody told me there was an article in the Duluth paper, but no one from the DNR has contacted us.”

Gary Moeller, co-owner of Ballard's Resort north of Baudette, Minn., said the new law will mean considerably more work when filling out labels on fish packaged for transport. To comply with the law, Moeller said, resort guides will have to measure and record the length of every fish cleaned for packaging.

During peak times of year, several hundred walleyes a day are processed in the resort's fish cleaning house.

“I find it extremely odd that the DNR has made no contact with us concerning this rules change,” Moeller said. “Why have we heard nothing?”

Frank Walsh, a licensed packer who owns Bay Store Camp on Oak Island, offered this theory:

“I guess I was supposed to get it via ESP (extra-sensory perception),” Walsh said. “Don't you think they would notify license holders?”

Having to mark every package with the length of each fish would be, in Walsh's words, a disaster.

“You would think something this big would be well-publicized,” he said.

According to the DNR's Johannes, the rule change process was in the works for about two years and included news releases seeking public comment and a public hearing last June at DNR headquarters in St. Paul.

The fish packing change was part of a larger package of proposed regulations “and may not have been on everybody's radar,” Johannes said.

“We didn't receive any comments back,” he said. “We had the hearing in June and didn't hear much.”

According to Linda Erickson-Eastwood, program manager for the DNR's Section of Fisheries Management, enforcement was part of the reason for the packing change. The feeling was that requiring the length of each fish on the label would increase the accountability for lakes with size restrictions.

“Enforcement thought they could do a better job of enforcing the experimental and special regulations if the packers would help pack them a certain way to be able to tell their lengths,” Erickson-Eastwood said.

Johannes said the DNR will include a notice of the rule change when it sends out letters reminding holders to renew their packing licenses. That should happen sometime this month.

The change doesn't affect regular anglers, who still must pack and transport walleyes with a 1-inch patch of skin intact.

In the case of saugers, a smaller cousin to the walleye that has a different limit on Lake of the Woods, fish must be transported in the round - basically gutted and gilled only - without a packing license. Otherwise, they count as walleyes.

Reach Dokken at 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or bdokken@gfherald.com.

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