IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The teams of fishermen arrived with a seemingly unusual array of equipment — loud airboats, powerful searchlights and scores of bows and arrows.
After their tournament on the Mississippi River ended, it had drawn enough complaints that federal regulators were considering tighter restrictions on the fast-growing but little-known sport of bowfishing, in which anglers shoot fish with arrows attached to fishing line. The competition took place at night, with teams using bright lights to spot fish.
“It turned night into day and blasted our ear drums like we were on an airport runway,” said Tim Mason, an environmental activist from McGregor, Iowa, who spends summers with his wife on a houseboat in the area.
The grumbling began soon after members of the Bowfishing Association of America gathered late last month for a world tournament in western Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa, home to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
The competition featured 43 teams, many using boats with aircraft-style propellers and powerful engines to zip across the water and low-lying land from dusk until early morning. They went after only invasive fish such as carp and gar. Cash prizes went to teams with the most fish (318) and the heaviest 20 fish (380 pounds).
While the contest thrilled the 130 participants who came from as far away as Alabama, some campers and cabin dwellers along the river complained of loud noises, lights and potential disturbances to habitat and wildlife.
Mason said he was able to read a newspaper at 2:30 a.m. and could hear boats coming from 3 miles away. He questioned the effect of the boats on water lotus and other plants that were in bloom, as well as river otters, bald eagles and other animals.
Tournament Director Matt Harris downplayed the complaints and defended bowfishing as a proper use of the protected area.
“It’s just something a lot of people along the river aren’t used to seeing, a lot of boat traffic at night,” Harris said. “At least where I was shooting, I can’t really see how our boat noise would be anything that would be all that disruptive.”
He noted that the huge harvest of invasive species — which was donated as feed to a pig farm — benefits populations of native fish.
Mason and a national watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, argue that the tournament blatantly violated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife rules for the refuge, which extends for 260 miles in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. It was established in 1924 to protect fish, wildlife, plants and migratory birds.
The critics want the Midwest regional office to review the agency’s hands-off approach to the event and to consider enforcement action against the organizers, who did not obtain permits or give advance notice. The agency should also consider whether to allow large bowfishing tournaments in a refuge, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group.
“It’s a big, noisy, new thing that is pretty fascinating,” Ruch said of the sport, which Bass Pro Shops calls “one of the hottest outdoor archery activities.”
The refuge’s rules require fishing tournament organizers to apply for permits from state natural resources agencies. They also call for minimizing any effects on other users, providing advance notice and prohibiting the “unreasonably disturbing” use of power equipment and lights.
The tournament, headquartered at the retailer Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, revealed a number of concerns as airboats and bowfishing become more popular, said Sabrina Chandler, supervisor of the refuge.
The Fish and Wildlife Service only learned of the two-day tournament a few days in advance, when officers saw an increase in airboats arriving early for pre-fishing, she said.
“We were very much caught off guard with this one,” Chandler said.
She said the agency received a number of complaints but did not take action, noting its officers do not enforce noise violations and leave that up to states.
As for fish and wildlife, she said, it’s not clear what impact airboats have but “it is something we’re looking into.”
Chandler said the event fell into an exemption under Wisconsin’s rules for fishing tournaments, which do not require permits for regional events. She called that a loophole, saying it may be closed next year when the agency rewrites its public-use rules.
“It fell through the cracks,” she said.
But the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said Wednesday that the exemption for regional tournaments was appropriate and should not be changed.
An Iowa Department of Natural Resources commissioner said Tuesday that the tournament had failed to obtain a required permit from that state and the matter had been referred to its law enforcement bureau for investigation. But agency spokesman Kevin Baskins said Wednesday the event did not need an Iowa permit since the boats originated in Wisconsin waters.