In a gripping scene from the 2017 documentary film “Sacred Cod,’’ an angry New England fisherman taunts a federal fisheries chief at a public meeting by calling him a paid liar.
In footage leading up to the clash, commercial anglers and community leaders in the historic fishing harbor of Gloucester, Mass., deny government reports that the cod population is near its end. The locals say their way of life has been devastated by harvest limitations.
Minnesota’s top fish ecologist sees a sociological parallel around Mille Lacs, where distrust and public discord are escalating over walleye protections that have made it illegal for state-licensed anglers to keep any fish during the summer season.
“It’s eerily similar,’’ said Don Pereira, fisheries chief at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Over the next four weeks or more, the DNR will be on the hot seat to re-explain its management strategy of the famed Mille Lacs walleye fishery. Lawmakers in St. Paul and the Mille Lacs County Board have scheduled meetings to hear from Pereira and others.
The hearings were sparked by recent accusations that the DNR hid details of a key walleye agreement made this spring with eight Chippewa bands that co-manage the lake. The DNR apologized and said mistakes were made, but the kerfuffle has become a flashpoint for growing activism to restore walleye fishing norms.
Many Mille Lacs area residents are saying walleye stocks have recovered. They base it on phenomenal catch rates. Meanwhile, such leaders as Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and Mille Lacs County Commissioner Dave Oslin want the DNR to be tougher in tribal negotiations to increase the state’s harvest allocation.
“My sense is that we’re always giving in ... instead of standing up for the taxpayers and those whose livelihood depends on this activity,” Erickson said. “The whole idea of negotiating a quota has to be re-examined.”
She said she’s getting more backup than ever in challenging the status quo. Top politicians have met with Erickson in her district, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, will question DNR officials next week at the Capitol about Mille Lacs and other topics.
Ingebrigtsen said he wants more openness from fisheries managers and a better explanation of why the area’s walleye economy has been dimmed by a catch-and-release rule.
Additional questions will be put to Pereira in early October at a meeting of the Mille Lacs County Board. Oslin said the county will present data to show economic losses related to stringent walleye quotas.
Oslin and Erickson said they side with others who have fished Mille Lacs for decades. They disbelieve the DNR’s adamant position that there’s a walleye crisis.
“The lake is coming back. As it comes back, the people feel the restrictions deeper,’’ Oslin said.
He said a growing core of stakeholders around Mille Lacs believes co-management of the fishery with the Chippewa isn’t working and should be challenged. Under a 1996 federal court order, Mille Lacs must be co-managed with the tribes by a science-based technical committee under detailed protocols.
But Oslin and others say the protocols can be changed and the state should flex its muscles.
“Every year there has gotten to be more tension,’’ said Oslin, who said he will step down from the DNR-appointed Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisories Committee (MLFAC).
MLFAC co-chairman Dean Hanson attacked the DNR over the recent walleye agreement that sets quotas through 2020. The agency briefed the MLFAC on key points of the agreement in timely fashion, but the document itself wasn’t distributed until Erickson uncovered it.
A heading on the harvest plan said: “Copies of this memorandum should not be included in any files which may be requested by private parties.’’
Pereira said it was an honest mistake for the DNR not to immediately release the document to the public. He said the antidisclosure heading was written while it was in draft form and should have been removed when the agreement was finalized.
Said Hanson: “Things like this really cast a shadow on the whole process. … There’s a lot of trust issues here.’’
Hanson said there’s frustration that the DNR doesn’t take MLFAC input seriously. Pereira said the MLFAC is valuable and its input has made a difference on issues including walleye hooking mortality and a proposed live bait ban. He said the DNR’s mistake in not immediately publishing the 2017-20 harvest plan will be discussed with the committee next month.
But the agency is not backing down on the need for tight fishing quotas. The DNR and Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission repeatedly have documented a crisis in the survival rate of baby walleyes. Between 2010 and 2015, Mille Lacs lost half its walleye biomass. Factors in the decline include food web changes caused by invasive zebra mussels and spiny waterfleas. Lack of forage is one reason given for the hot walleye bite.
Pereira said the walleye collapse has been met by denials, much as public doubt and infuriation dominated the reaction in Gloucester to a virtual ban on cod fishing imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. People in the oldest fishing port in the U.S. still don’t accept what NOAA has described as the near commercial extinction of cod.
In Minnesota, Pereira said, it’s a constant frustration to manage the Mille Lacs fishery while having “to exert so much energy managing human dimensions.’’
Steve Liss, co-director of “Sacred Cod,’’ said there were times during filming when he lent more credibility to what commercial fishermen were saying about the viability of cod fishing. Their real-world experience held some weight over computer modeling and ecology.
“You can say that scientists don’t have the same skin in the game,’’ Liss said.
But both camps were genuine in their beliefs, he said, and there’s no denying now that commercial cod fishing in the region is dead and never coming back. He said mistrust of fisheries managers grew from local resentment that something dear was being taken away.
“People feel thwarted … that their voices aren’t being heard,’’ said Liss, a professor at Endicott College in Boston.
Around Mille Lacs, there’s still hope for a turnaround. Environmental sociologist Kristen Nelson at the University of Minnesota said the case is complicated by cultural and family ties to the lake, not just economics.
“As long as people are still sitting at the table talking, it’s a good sign,’’ she said.