Department of Natural Resources fisheries researchers met with their counterparts from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) Thursday to discuss what perhaps will be the most contentious Mille Lacs walleye management issue since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that eight Chippewa bands reserved off-reservation hunting and fishing treaty rights in what is now a 12-county region of east-central Minnesota.
DNR research indicates a trend of declining male walleyes in the big lake, data that if confirmed could result in significant Mille Lacs harvest changes.
For about 15 years, the Chippewa have netted Mille Lacs during the spring spawn, each year taking a significantly smaller proportion of the total "safe harvest'' of Mille Lacs walleyes than sport anglers receive.
This year, the bands were awarded 142,500 pounds, while hook and line anglers got 357,500 pounds. But a proposed five-year plan the Chippewa sent to the DNR allows for the bands' quota to grow by nearly 20,000 pounds, with no significant changes proposed in harvest methodology.
Meanwhile, data produced by the DNR seems to confirm what Mille Lacs anglers know too well: its walleye fishery is imbalanced, with too few small, or male, walleyes, and excessive numbers of large -- mostly female -- walleyes.
If the DNR and the bands ultimately agree that state researchers' findings are correct, something will have to change.
Perhaps the bands' net mesh size will have to increase to target bigger fish. Or perhaps the bands might have to alter when they fish.
It's also possible the state's angling harvest strategy will have to change, allowing fishermen to keep one or more larger fish in their bags, for example. But in that case, anglers might reach their quota quickly, ultimately restricting access to the lake.
Before any of that can happen, the two parties must agree -- or agree to disagree -- that the DNR's declining-male-walleye data is correct. That will take months, DNR fisheries research manager Don Pereira said Tuesday.
"We agreed at the meeting last week to form a smaller technical working group,'' Pereira said. "As soon as that group completes a detailed review of [the DNR's research], we'll meet again,'' he said, likely in October.