Anderson: How to share Mille Lacs walleye?

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2012 - 4:32 PM

An 1837 treaty and the Supreme Court say the fruits of Lake Mille Lacs must be divided between Chippewa bands and sport anglers. The bands' plan is to add to its take over the next five years.

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Eight Chippewa bands have the right to hunt, fish and gather off their reservations in a portion of east-central Minnesota that includes Lake Mille Lacs. At Mille Lacs, the bands use nets to take fish, mostly walleyes, and their plan for the future is to take more, which would cut into the share available for sport anglers.

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The eight Chippewa bands that just now are concluding their spring netting of Mille Lacs are proposing to increase their annual walleye quota over the next five years to as much as 169,000 pounds.

The bands' quota this year -- the last in a five-year agreement reached with the state in 2007 -- is 142,500 pounds, up from 122,500 pounds in 2008, the first year of that agreement.

The higher amount -- 169,000 pounds -- is detailed in a draft report submitted to the state Department of Natural Resources by the bands. The document was obtained by the Star Tribune following a request to the DNR under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

The DNR has not yet responded to the Chippewas' planned harvest.

In their latest proposal, the bands reserve the right to further increase their sport-fish harvest in Mille Lacs and throughout the portion of east-central Minnesota covered by an 1837 treaty their ancestors signed with the federal government.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 decision that the bands reserved in the treaty the right to hunt, fish and gather off their reservations throughout what is now an approximately 12-county region of Minnesota.

In subsequent court orders, the state, through the DNR, was directed to share the Mille Lacs game-fish harvest with the bands.

To that end, DNR biologists meet at least annually with their counterparts from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission to assess fish population and other data, and to set "safe harvest limits'' for the coming year.

The limits, measured in pounds for northern pike as well as walleyes, represent the biologists' best estimate of the amount of fish that can be taken from the lake each year without adversely affecting brood stocks.

Since 1997, the bands and the state -- negotiating on behalf of hook-and-line sport anglers -- have divided the safe harvest, with the smaller share so far going to the bands.

For example, in 2008, the bands' walleye quota was 122,500 pounds out of a total safe harvest that year of 430,000 pounds, meaning 307,500 pounds were reserved for sport angling.

In some years, neither the bands nor the state reaches its Mille Lacs walleye quota. The closest the bands came in the past five years was in 2010, when they netted 124,000 pounds out of a quota of 132,500 pounds.

Last year, because of a late spring and ice-out on Mille Lacs, their walleye take was far less: 61,000 pounds from a quota of 142,500 pounds.

Headed to 50 percent?

The concern has long been that the Chippewa eventually would claim as much as half of Mille Lacs' annual walleye safe harvest. If they do, restrictions on anglers likely would tighten.

This summer, for instance, anglers will be limited to keeping Mille Lacs walleyes less than 17 inches long. Last year, the mark was 18 inches. But the DNR anticipates good fishing on the lake when the season opens May 12, and the 17-inch restriction is in place to ensure to the greatest degree possible that walleye fishing on Mille Lacs will remain open all year, and that the state's quota of 357,500 pounds won't be met prematurely.

One walleye 28 inches or longer also can be kept by anglers.

Much of the latest Chippewa plan details how the eight bands -- two of which, Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac, are from Minnesota; the rest are from Wisconsin -- will divide the harvest among themselves.

Example: The largest share of next year's Chippewa Mille Lacs harvest quota, which is 147,000 pounds, will go to the Mille Lacs band, with 28,500 pounds. Close behind is Fond du Lac, with 27,500 pounds. Unused allotments can be traded among bands. The bands' walleye quota will remain 147,000 pounds throughout the five-year agreement, except that in any year a band reaches 90 percent of its quota, its quota for the subsequent year would increase by 2,000 pounds.

Similarly, if all eight bands reached 90 percent of their quotas, the group's harvest the following year would rise by 2,000 pounds per band, or 16,000 pounds total, to a maximum of 169,000 pounds during the agreement's five years.

(If the Mille Lacs walleye safe harvest falls below 348,000 pounds, or double the bands' proposed 169,000 quota, the bands' quota under the proposal would be half the safe harvest amount.)

The bands indicate in the proposal that they intend to increase their walleye harvest over time. From the report:

"The courts in the Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac cases have not made a judicial allocation of fishery resources in the Minnesota 1837 ceded territory. Like the 2008-2012 Plan, this management plan does not purport to provide for the full harvest of what the Bands believe to be their full treaty share of such resources. The Bands' management approach, as set forth in this plan, is intended to provide for the continuing gradual development of treaty fisheries in the Minnesota 1837 ceded territory during its five-year term, commensurate with the interests, needs, and desires of Band members. This management approach is not intended to limit, waive or modify the Bands' full treaty entitlement and any such construction of this plan is improper and unauthorized.''

Unknown is what effect new studies planned by the DNR to determine the abundance of certain year classes of Mille Lacs walleyes might have on future safe-harvest levels for that lake. The DNR is concerned that numbers of male walleyes in particular from the 2005, 2006 and 2007 year classes appear unusually low. These fish -- 15 to 19 inches long -- are the same ones generally targeted by sport anglers and Chippewa netters.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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