Bradley Harrington Jr., the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe commissioner of Natural Resources and Environment, said state and tribal fisheries managers dealing with historically low walleye numbers on Lake Mille Lacs sense a buildup of community pressure to liberalize fishing regulations. But science-based conservation of the species comes first, he said.
While many longtime anglers and people who make money from walleye fishing say the lake’s walleye population has recovered, Harrington cites evidence to the contrary. He also said anti-Indian racial tension in the area has increased.
By law, Harrington’s agency shares management of the fishery with seven other Ojibwe, or Chippewa, bands and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Under jointly set harvest limits, it’s been illegal for two consecutive summers for state-licensed anglers to keep any Mille Lacs walleyes. Also this summer there was a period when catch-and-release fishing for walleyes was banned.
Harrington recently responded to questions from the Star Tribune. The exchange, edited for length, follows.
Q In what ways are social pressures for greater walleye harvest on Mille Lacs affecting management of the fishery?
A Every group affected by the declining ogaa [walleye] population has a different perspective on what’s causing it and what to do about it. Scientific data must be our common ground. We should be able to agree on the science while still holding our values true. The bands take into account the state anglers’ privilege to harvest walleye from the lake. We have agreed to a 70/30 split for anglers to ease the conservation burden rather than insisting on a 50/50 split that exists in other co-managed fisheries. We expect and deserve to have state anglers respect our constitutionally protected right to harvest as well. The treaty rights to harvest on Mille Lacs and in other ceded territories is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
When it comes to natural resources, the financial element should not be considered when the resource is struggling. Conservation should be first and foremost. Decisions about management should happen and then other steps taken to address the consequences. The fact is, that is what has happened. The state has allocated millions of dollars to help the resorts and businesses losing revenue due to the low ogaa population. Resorts are market driven and sometimes the market is good and sometimes not. Preparing for tough times in a nature-focused industry should have been considered because that is good business. The well-being of the ogaa should not be driven by the market, but management decisions based on good science.
Q Some Mille Lacs area residents and business owners, including members of a state-appointed citizen advisory committee, want the DNR to be “tougher’’ with bands during walleye harvest negotiations. Do you see any change in the DNR’s posture during technical committee work that reflects this attitude? Is the DNR getting tougher?
A The pressure from the resorts is definitely sensed at the meetings, but our focus continues to be on analyzing the data and making decisions that protect the long-term health of the lake.
Q The citizen advisory committee wants observers to sit in on walleye management meetings between the DNR and tribes. Could [observers] help relieve some of the social discontent with walleye management on Mille Lacs?
A The technical committee provides a forum for government-to-government discussion in accordance with a court order that was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s not a public committee where anyone can speak their minds. Tribal members are represented by their government officials and tribal biologists. State anglers are represented by the Minnesota DNR. The tribes take the information back to their communities and the state does the same.
Q Critics of walleye management on Mille Lacs don’t believe the lake’s walleye population is in distress. They say the lake is “back” or has recovered. What’s the best scientific evidence to the contrary?
A The best evidence comes from zooplankton and invasive species counts. … Microscopic zooplankton is eaten by forage fish [sunfish, minnows, perch] and forage fish are eaten by bigger fish such as walleye. Biologists have tracked drastic reductions in the amount and type of zooplankton in Mille Lacs. That means less food for forage fish, therefore less forage fish, therefore less big fish. How did this happen? Zebra mussels and spiny waterfleas both filter and eat plankton. The biomass of zebra mussels is well over 1,000 times the walleye biomass in Mille Lacs. So all that energy from the zooplankton that would have become forage fish is “locked up” and unusable. Biological and abiotic impacts from these invasive species may be increasing cannibalism of juvenile walleye, reducing fish habitat, and reducing forage fish species that “buffer” against juvenile walleye predation.
Q There’s been a perception in the Mille Lacs area that tribal fishing of walleye during the spawn hurts the fishery. Has that perception worsened or eased over time? Do you think vocal opponents of the joint management system have a racist agenda or anti-Indian agenda? If so, how does it affect management of the fishery?
A Many of the most vocal voices clearly have an anti-Indian agenda rooted in racism. These are the same people who threw rocks at Native Americans exercising their rights in the 1990s. Today is not quite that bad, but anti-Indian activities have increased in recent years; the recent “Circle the Wagons” rally [where protesters in boats encircled Gov. Mark Dayton while he promoted Mille Lacs bass fishing] is a perfect example of blatant racism at play on Mille Lacs. Some of those raising objections to treaty rights and the science behind management decisions just don’t like that the 1837 treaty protects our right to harvest through netting and spearing. They refuse to respect or acknowledge the rights of Anishinaabe people. They want to talk about saving the heritage and culture of Minnesota fishing while ignoring the ugly history of racism that is connected to it. They also choose to ignore the fact that the heritage and culture of the Ojibwe people predates Minnesota’s angling traditions.