The recent protest at Lake Mille Lacs by members of Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM) is the wrong approach to problem-solving. Interrupting the governor’s day of fishing was tacky. PERM members upset with the July closure of the walleye season are crying foul. This regulation was issued in March, and should have been no surprise. Yet a lot people seem to have missed the news.
This controversy has raged for 20 years with no sign of calming down. There have been years of frustration based on false expectations. Many have never accepted the reality of the treaty rights decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, it is the law of the land and no amount of protest will change it.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had negotiated a settlement that capped the tribal harvest at 20,000 pounds; if that were in place today, the resort community would have a much better business environment. PERM actively fought approval of that agreement by the Legislature, and now finds the result hard to live with.
Things went fairly smoothly in the years immediately following the decision because the walleye population was in good shape. Unfortunately, the lake is now transitioning through ecological changes caused by the presence of zebra mussels and higher temperatures, which add to the uncertainty of fisheries management. The fish community has gone through radical changes and the fishing has suffered.
Fortunately, a strong year class from 2013 is now present, and the fishing is currently better than it was. The DNR is using regulations to try to protect these fish in order to increase the number of spawning fish in the lake. This has required reduced harvest and other regulations to prevent incidental mortality due to catch-and-release methods. The lake eventually will stabilize within the new ecological conditions and become more predictable, but until then more uncertainty should be expected.
This will require resort owners to re-examine a business model that is front-ended by unpredictable natural variations. The lake will have cycles of good years and poor years, and everyone needs to accept that. Betting that the future will be like the past is a risky strategy.
Back when the court decision was handed down, the DNR recommended that businesses heavily dependent on fishing should seek ways to diversify because fewer fish would be available. Unfortunately, political pressure has forced the harvest up to the point of reduced resilience in the walleye population. Critics of the fishery managers do not appreciate how much has been done to accommodate high harvest levels. But great care must be exercised to avoid major declines in reproduction and replacement of harvested fish.
The court decision prompted the need for comanagement of the lake. The decision essentially gave equal responsibility to the state and the tribes that signed the federal treaty of 1837. A sound working structure has been established and is working well to manage the resources of the lake. Many citizens publicly object to this arrangement, but it is the law of the land that management must be shared equally. Everyone needs to accept this situation and move forward. Co-management works well, but cheap criticism is not helpful.
The co-managers have a strong program in place with well-trained staff and intensive data collection that will provide excellent assessments of what is happening to the fishery. Their recommendations to policymakers have been based on frequent surveys and models that predict outcomes under different management scenarios. These are dedicated professionals who know what they are doing.
The future of the fishery and resort businesses requires that conservation must put the welfare of the fish population first. Sometimes the regulations are onerous and very restrictive, but they are necessary for sound management. Failure must not be an option, since the welfare of so many jobs and businesses depends on what is decided.
Members of the resort community need to realize that the DNR is not their enemy. The hard truth is that no amount of political pressure on the harvest allocation will produce more fish. None of the co-managers wants to see businesses fail and they will do their best to ensure the viability of businesses around the lake.
I know the staff of the DNR is dedicated to public service. And sometimes the best service one can provide is to say no.
Rod Sando was commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from 1991 to 1999. He now lives in Oregon.