As the smelt run begins in the Duluth area, those who harvest the silvery forage fish are being told they can be used only for eating, not as bait.
The message is being spread in an effort to limit the movement of VHS, a virus that has caused fish kills elsewhere on the Great Lakes. The disease is not harmful to humans.
"We're saying go ahead and harvest, but do it for consumption only," said Mike Scott, a DNR conservation officer specializing in invasive species.
Existing law prevents the harvest of minnows or fish as bait from any Minnesota water designated as "infested waters." Lake Superior has been in that category for several years because of invasive species such as the spiny water flea, zebra mussels and others.
But until it was announced in January that VHS was found in a few fish from Lake Superior in a Cornell University study, the smelt-as-bait rule was virtually unenforced by conservation officers.
On Tuesday, Wisconsin DNR officials announced that VHS had been found in lake herring in the Apostle Islands, further confirming the presence of VHS in Lake Superior.
The Minnesota DNR had considered closing the harvest of smelt statewide, but declined to go that far, said Chris Johnson, DNR district enforcement supervisor at Two Harbors.
Meanwhile, smelters are getting a few smelt on Minnesota Point and in the Lester River, though not a lot, said DNR conservation officer Kipp Duncan of Duluth.
"Sunday night, they were catching smelt, but not a ton," he said. "Saturday night, before midnight, they were catching some smelt."
He said reaction varied among smelters informed of the DNR's policy regarding Lake Superior smelt.
"We did it quite a bit on Thursday, Friday and Saturday on Park Point," Duncan said. "We told them, 'These smelt are supposed to be for consumption only, not bait.' Some said, 'Where does it say that?'"
The ruling is part of the Minnesota fishing regulations synopsis, but it does require a close reading to interpret. And it remains confusing because the rule has existed in the past without being enforced. It was difficult to enforce the law because smelt also live in a few inland lakes across Northeastern Minnesota, and it's all but impossible to determine where the smelt originated, enforcement officers say.
The new effort to curb the use of smelt as bait also applies to the use of herring and ciscoes and any other Lake Superior fish used as bait, Scott said.
Anglers on Lake Superior sometimes used ciscoes or smelt when fishing for lake trout. Many anglers like to use smelt or ciscoes for bait when fishing for lake trout in inland lakes.