We strive to accurately understand the biology and status of freshwater fishes native to North America, especially those species that have been historically neglected out of ill-conceived bias. With updated and accurate life history information for all species vital to native ecosystems, sustainable fisheries management can be achieved. Without such data, informed management is impossible because the fishes – and the ecosystems themselves – remain grossly misunderstood. As new harvest methods, interests, and technologies evolve it becomes increasingly important that all fish and fisheries are understood, including bowfishing. Indeed, fish stocks are easily overexploited, as has been shown time and time again throughout the course of human history.

A case in point

Take for example the bigmouth buffalo. Previous to our research published in 2019, this species, and the buffalofishes in general, were grossly misunderstood. Using accurate and precise aging methodology for otolith-bearing fish species (otolith thin sectioning), we discovered that bigmouth buffalo can reach 112 years of age – one of the longest-lived fishes ever known – which is more than four times older than the previously-reported maximum age for this species. This aging protocol was validated, and not only that, century-old individuals were still advancing into their prime relative to younger individuals, which is absolutely amazing. We have also uncovered that bigmouth buffalo recruit episodically and are in decline. In some areas, 85-90% of individuals are between 80-115 years old, indicating decades’ long recruitment failure since the 1930s.

The bigmouth buffalo is at serious risk when harvest limits are non-existent and there is no monitoring or management by regulatory agencies responsible for managing fisheries. Unfortunately, neglect is the norm for bigmouth buffalo in Minnesota and North Dakota as their management is none (which is also the same for many other species including quillback and bowfin). There are no limits, even as these fishes have become sportfish in recent decades. Populations of bigmouth buffalo were already in decline in parts of MN and ND prior to the onset of night bowfishing.

Buffalo waste

(80-100 year-old fish)

Not only are bigmouth buffalo pursued by anglers, bigmouth buffalo are valuable in the fight against invasive species and are valuable to native food-web ecology. They compete directly against invasive carp, and they also feed on invasive zebra mussel larvae. Bigmouth buffalo young themselves are food for walleye, northern pike, catfish, gar, and other predatory fish.

As is clear from this case study, accurate age information is crucial to sustainable fisheries, and much remains to be done to save this iconic fish. Conservation assessments need updating, fisheries management requires broad-scale change, and the ill-conceived ecological neglect of native fishes needs to be addressed by fisheries professionals.