Lake and Reservoir Fishing – An Opportunity for Improvement

By Don Bonneau
Fisheries Research Supervisor
Iowa Department of Natural Resources

The new buzz among those involved in sport fishing, including those of us in state fish and wildlife agencies is concern about trends in angler participation and the need to introduce new individuals to the sport.  Data collected as a result of computerized license sales generated these concerns and have greatly benefited our understanding of those purchasing fishing licenses.  This same information has resulted in a greater emphasis on casual anglers and what can be done to motivate this very large group to spend more time fishing.

Critical to our efforts to expand the sport is recognition of those water bodies important to people.  The latest National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation highlighted the value of lakes and reservoirs to the angling public.  Excluding the Great Lakes, freshwater anglers fished a total of 443 million days during 2001 and over 70% of those days were spent fishing lakes and reservoirs.  Obviously these habitats are very important to people and a preferred place of fish. This, and the fact that the vast majority of fishing trips occur within 25 miles of home, demonstrates the critical value of each lake and reservoir to our efforts to expand fishing opportunity and days spent fishing.

Our own angler surveys also documented the importance of lakes and reservoirs to the public but we found fishing quality enjoyed by anglers was often below expectations and responded very little to our efforts to make needed improvements.  This problem was solved with a more complete assessment of environmental factors important to fish.  These assessments took a holistic approach that included the watershed, water quality and the fish community.  As a result, we learned much about natural resource management, people and critical issues impacting fish and fishing in our Iowa landscape.  We also learned factors critical to quality fish communities and lake and reservoir fishing are often not under our control.  In these cases, traditional approaches to fish management such as stocking and regulation of angler harvest did not produce the desired fishery.  The end result was continuation of poor fishing and a decrease in overall lake use.  Our reputation as the fish experts suffered and, worse yet, we spent a great deal of time and money with little benefit to either fish or fishing.

So what was the problem?  Why did some lakes and reservoirs not respond to traditional approaches common to fish management and what was done to improve these fisheries?  We found our failure to improve fish communities in these lakes and reservoirs was in our approach to the problem of poor fishing.  It concentrated management on the fish and fishermen and gave little thought to the system as a whole and how the parts of that system function as a working unit.  As a result, we changed our approach and developed a more comprehensive database and now accept the fact that lakes and reservoirs, along with their watersheds, are living, breathing systems, subject to many influences beyond the control of fish managers. The learning curve was slow but the new approach has built needed partnerships and greatly benefited the landscape, water quality and fishing.  And due to the development of success stories, the approach now enjoys strong support from both the public and anglers.

This comprehensive approach to lake and reservoir management started in the late 1970’s as the result of a partnership with EPA and funding made available though Section 314 of the Clean Water Act.  This section of the Act is referred to as The Clean Lakes Program and is the only program that specifically targets the special needs of lakes and reservoirs.  The importance of the Clean Lakes Program is supported by the results of U.S. EPA’s national assessment report on water quality published in 2000.  Data was reported on 43% of the total lake and reservoir acreage in the U.S. and 55% of those acres were assessed as “impaired for designated uses”, uses such as swimming and fishing.  The results of lake assessments in Iowa are consistent with those reported for the U.S., with about half of our lakes assessed as impaired.   These “impairments” gain even greater significance when we factor in lake and reservoir location relative to population centers.  Our degraded lakes and reservoirs are often associated with the higher densities of people and potential anglers.

Why is the Clean Lakes Program a successful model for the management of lakes and reservoirs?  The answer is in its comprehensive approach, an approach that fosters local involvement in problem identification and solution – the philosophy that local problems require local solutions.  The program provides guidance and financial support to assess the status of significant publicly-owned lakes and reservoirs.  It also supports identification of the causes of impairments and assists in the identification of innovative and cost effective ways to repair damage done to lakes and reservoirs, including their watersheds. The program also provides cost share funds to protect and repair these systems and monitor the results of costly construction projects.

Iowa’s lake and reservoir protection and restoration efforts are modeled after EPA’s Clean Lakes Program.  Efforts address in-lake, as well as, watershed issues and success is measured in terms of improved lake water quality, improvements to the fishery and increase in lake use.  Federal funding for this program ended in 1994; however, Iowa continued the program and even increased dollars spent to protect and restore of lakes and reservoirs.  In the most recent funding cycle, the legislature appropriated $8.5 million of general revenue funds with intention to increase funding in succeeding years.  In addition, the program helps leverage local funds, Farm Bill Conservation Title funds and other funds needed to improve lake and reservoir fishing.  The goal of all this work and expenditure of money is better water quality, more fish, more fishing, and greater public use of lakes and reservoirs.

The Clean Lakes Program has been very popular and successful because of the public’s interest in lakes and reservoirs and local involvement in protection and restoration efforts.  It is this local interest and concern that generates the federal, state and local partnerships needed to plan, fund and complete this costly work.  The most recently completed and assessed lake restoration project in Iowa resulted in quadrupling lake and park use to over ½ million visitors per year.  Likewise, the fish community and fishing increased by several orders of magnitude with little cost to anglers.  Similar local grass-root partnerships have greatly benefited water quality and recreation at 12 other lakes, work is underway to protect or restore 6 lakes and plans are being made to restore 9 additional lakes and reservoirs.

Of interest to those of us charged with the care and management of lakes and reservoirs is the fact that the Clean Lakes Program has not received separate funding since 1994.   Instead of separate funding, EPA directed states to use at least 5% of the Section 319 Nonpoint Program funding for Clean Lakes Program Activities. As a result, the needs of lakes beyond watershed remediation are not receiving adequate program attention and funding.

The Clean Lakes Program was specifically designed to help states and local communities address special problems facing public lakes and reservoirs, problems such as degraded in-lake and shoreline habitat; degraded fisheries; nuisance exotic species; eutrophication; in-lake nutrient recycling; and contamination from such things as bacteria.  In addition, the program provided financial assistance to protect more pristine lakes.

These issues, and many others critical to the protection and improvement of lakes and reservoirs, are not traditionally covered under 319 Nonpoint Program guidelines and have not competed well for 319 funding. Watersheds, the target of 319 funding, are a critical element of any lake improvement plan, but they are not the entire answer, and without attention to in-lake issues, we cannot attain the “fishable and swimmable” goals of the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Lakes Program is a fantastic model specifically designed to solve complicated and expensive problems impacting lakes and reservoirs, solutions that result in better fishing.  It is a program that gives lakes and reservoirs the special focus they deserve, a focus similar to that afforded wetland, estuary, and coastal zone habitats.  Anglers and other lake lovers could even argue lakes and reservoirs deserve a greater focus because of their importance to people and because many are in trouble and don’t meet the goals of the Clean Water Act.  We, as representatives of fish and fishing, can help paint a brighter future for lakes and reservoirs but success will hinge on our ability to partner with others interested in the well-being of lakes and reservoirs.  This partnership would likely be based on more holistic view of lake and reservoir management and would include those interested in lake water quality and other uses of lakes and reservoirs.  The approach is a bit intimidating but the fact is our valuable lakes and reservoirs deserve a better shake.  This will likely happen if those of us in the sport fish industry become more involved and help our partners address the well-being of fish and fishing as related to goals and programs of the Clean Water Act!