Water clarity and temperature effects on walleye safe harvest: an empirical test of the safe operating space concept

Gretchen J.A. Hansen, Luke A. Winslow, Jordan S. Read, Melissa Treml, Patrick J. Schmalz, Stephen R. Carpenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Successful management of natural resources requires local action that adapts to larger-scale environmental changes in order to maintain populations within the safe operating space (SOS) of acceptable conditions. Here, we identify the boundaries of the SOS for a managed freshwater fishery in the first empirical test of the SOS concept applied to management of harvested resources. Walleye (Sander vitreus) are popular sport fish with declining populations in many North American lakes, and understanding the causes of and responding to these changes is a high priority for fisheries management. We evaluated the role of changing water clarity and temperature in the decline of a high-profile walleye population in Mille Lacs, Minnesota, USA, and estimated safe harvest under changing conditions from 1987 to 2017. Thermal–optical habitat area (TOHA)—the proportion of lake area in which the optimal thermal and optical conditions for walleye overlap—was estimated using a thermodynamic simulation model of daily water temperatures and light conditions. We then used a SOS model to analyze how walleye carrying capacity and safe harvest relate to walleye thermal–optical habitat. Thermal–optical habitat area varied annually and declined over time due to increased water clarity, and maximum safe harvest estimated by the SOS model varied by nearly an order of magnitude. Maximum safe harvest levels of walleye declined with declining TOHA. Walleye harvest exceeded safe harvest estimated by the SOS model in 16 out of the 30 yr of our dataset, and walleye abundance declined following 14 of those years, suggesting that walleye harvest should be managed to accommodate changing habitat conditions. By quantifying harvest trade-offs associated with loss of walleye habitat, this study provides a framework for managing walleye in the context of ecosystem change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02737
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thanks to the numerous MN DNR, GLIFWC, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa staff who collected Mille Lacs data over the past three decades. Thanks especially to Tom Jones, Eric Jensen, and Rick Bruesewitz for their engagement with this work. We appreciate the comments provided by Brian Weidel, two anonymous reviewers, and the associate editor which greatly improved this manuscript. Steven Carpenter acknowledges support by awards from NSF DEB-1440297 and USGS G11AC20456 and G16AC00222. Luke Winslow acknowledges support from NSF MSB-1638704. Jordan Read, Gretchen Hansen, and Luke Winslow acknowledge support from the Department of the Interior Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. This work was supported in part by Sport Fish Restoration Funds to the MN DNR. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Authors.


  • Mille Lacs
  • adaptation
  • climate change
  • ecosystem change
  • fisheries
  • harvest
  • lake
  • oligotrophication
  • safe operating space
  • thermal–optical habitat
  • walleye
  • water clarity


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