Managing Muskellunge in the New River, Virginia: Effective Regulations and Predation on Smallmouth Bass
Potential predation between fishes of recreational interest has incited many bitter conflicts between angler groups. Large predators, such as esocids, are often at the center of these conflicts because of their capacity to alter fish populations. Such a conflict certainly exists between the Muskellunge Esox masquinongy and Smallmouth Bass Micropterus dolomieu fisheries of the New River, Virginia. Following the institution of a 42-in minimum-length limit (MLL) on Muskellunge, bass anglers feared that increased Muskellunge abundance might be negatively affecting Smallmouth Bass via increased predation. In order to ascertain the impacts of the 42-in MLL, I estimated the demographics, abundance, and food habits of Muskellunge combined with bioenergetics modeling to assess changes (i) in the quality of the Muskellunge fishery and (ii) in Muskellunge predation on Smallmouth Bass. Additionally, given the likelihood of future regulations to incite similar concerns from bass anglers, I modeled alternative length-limit regulations (iii) to assess their potential to improve fishery quality, thereby laying the groundwork for managers to address angler concerns before they arise. I found substantial increases in population size structure and in average adult density of Muskellunge since the institution of the 42-in MLL, but bioenergetics modeling did not indicate a notable increase in the consumption of Smallmouth Bass. I also found that high MLLs (e.g., 48-in) were likely to promote the largest increases in trophy production of Muskellunge compared to low MLLs or protected-slot limits (PSLs). This study suggests that the current Muskellunge population likely plays a small role in shaping Smallmouth Bass population dynamics and production in the New River; and lays the groundwork for predicting how the impact of Muskellunge on Smallmouth Bass might change under alternative regulations.