Commendably, the Star Tribune’s July 26 editorial (“Rescue plan needed for suffering Mille Lacs”) attempted to put fair and reasonable context around the unsettling news that one of Minnesota’s most popular lakes is suffering to the extent that fishing for the prized walleye will almost certainly be banned for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately, earlier reporting and a column by outdoors writer Dennis Anderson (“Why Mille Lacs fishery faltered, and what we can do,” July 24) did a disservice in dissecting the Mille Lacs problem by fingering climate change as a culprit, harping that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) needs a better fish-management plan — and, oh yes, about those Indians and their treaty fishing rights.
In truth, Mille Lacs is suffering a near-perfect storm of abuse that over time has done and is doing to that lake what similar maltreatment is doing to many other lakes that annually pump $2 billion into Minnesota’s economy — just from fishing. Billions more are at stake, when we include effects on tourism and lake property values.
Anderson blamed DNR fishery managers and, as usual, hinted that the Indians’ court-approved take of walleye must figure in somehow. Why else suggest that the governor talk with Ojibwe leaders about — exactly what? Never mind that the DNR is emphatic that Indian fishing cannot be singled out here.
Mille Lacs is a very large and shallow lake ringed by towns and resorts and cabins. Its watershed has been radically altered over time by development designed to generate revenue with little concern for how it might affect the lake. And so the “perfect storm” of abuse includes nutrient enrichment from lawn fertilizers as well as phosphorus and poisons from nearby row crops that cannot be effectively filtered because shore-land vegetation has been removed. There’s little to prevent nutrient overload that grows algae, which decays and consumes oxygen that sustains fish and their habitat. Leaky septic tanks and paved-over areas add still more nutrients.
Climate change intensifies heating of the lake’s upper strata, fueling unwanted algal growth. Further, the careless trailering of boats from one lake to the next has brought an infestation of invasive species.
Fishery experts really don’t know what all is going on with the Mille Lacs walleye, so how can they draw up a “new plan”?
While it’s convenient to draw comparisons to other tragedies, the chronic Mille Lacs problem isn’t like the acute avian disease that recently wracked Minnesota’s turkey and chicken producers. And, no, tinkering with angling rules and stocking more fish will by themselves do next to nothing.
The Mille Lacs problem has been decades in the making, and undoing it surely will require a massive, far-reaching effort that will just as surely engender political opposition that would cripple restoration, likely making it impossible. In the end, the problem may be too large to solve.
The Star Tribune editorial is correct: What’s going on at Mille Lacs is a natural disaster — with a giant assist from human irresponsibility. It’s a Minnesota problem that can best be addressed by stopping the senseless blame game and getting on with the major challenge of figuring out how to solve a mess we’ve all helped to create.
Meantime, don’t think Mille Lacs is alone.
Ron Way, of Edina, is a former official with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior.