ST. PAUL (AP) -- Describing a Department of Natural Resources policy against off-site, live weigh-ins for fishing tournaments as misguided, Commissioner Gene Merriam reversed the position for one event and pledged to change the policy.
Merriam's decision came after a call from Irwin Jacobs, owner of the world's largest bass-boat company and sponsor of the sport's richest tournament series. Jacobs wanted an off-site, live fish weigh-in for his bass tournament last week in Red Wing, but DNR officials initially refused the request because of concerns about fish mortality.
Merriam said he was unaware of the policy until told by Jacobs, the chief executive of Minnesota-based boat maker Genmar. He said his decision had nothing to do with Jacobs' stature and that he had never met Jacobs.
Minnesota is one of only a few states that hasn't allowed such weigh-ins in recent years, and environmental groups reacted mildly.
"The sooner the fish are returned to the water, the better chance of survival. We would prefer to see the fish returned to water as soon as possible," said Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance. But his group wasn't opposed to tournament fishing and wouldn't take a position on the off-site weigh-ins, he said.
The ban started six years ago, after a Lake Minnetonka bass tournament weigh-in at the Mall of America ended with about one-fourth of the fish dead.
This year, the DNR twice denied a permit to allow Jacobs' tournament to move caught fish about 20 miles because of concerns that many might die after they were released back into the Mississippi River.
State law allows the DNR to deny permits for off-site weigh-ins at fishing tournaments to prevent "undue loss of fish" and to deny permits for live-release when "anticipated environmental conditions may cause increased mortality of fish."
"DNR Fisheries' position is that it is better to avoid wasting fish and the inevitable public relations problems that occur when dead fish float to the surface after a tournament," fisheries director Ron Payer wrote in a briefing paper he prepared for Merriam on the topic.
Merriam's ruling ultimately allowed Jacobs' tournament to have a weigh-in at the Wal-Mart in Hastings. DNR officials say it appears that more than 20 percent of the fish -- largemouth and smallmouth bass -- died after the eight-hour excursion away from the river this month.
Jacobs is also the owner and financier behind the Wal-Mart FLW Tour. The tour is one of two high-paying pro bass fishing circuits that hold tournaments across the country each year. With millions in prize money at stake, the tournaments often are covered by cable outdoor shows and fishing magazines.
Weigh-ins for many of the 178 tournaments are held in Wal-Mart parking lots as promotions, and coverage often is piped into the aisles.
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