By Ricardo Lopez, Josephine Marcotty and J. Patrick Coolican
Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday that for the first time the state is looking into stocking Lake Mille Lacs with walleye, perhaps as early as this spring.

The lake, long a major draw for walleye anglers, has been plagued by a dearth of its prize fish. Quantities plunged so low earlier this month that the state took the rare step of closing the lake to walleye fishing on Monday, cutting short the season by months and sending surrounding resorts into economic turmoil as they dealt with multiple trip cancellations.

Dayton has been urging lawmakers to cooperate on holding another special session, this one to aid the regional businesses dependent on walleye season. Legislators have resisted and on Thursday Dayton said he was alarmed by a legislative working group's call to reopen the fishing season even though the state has now exceeded its quota, agreed to in a treaty with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and seven other bands.

Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr said his agency is working on a plan to stock the lake, possibly this spring. He said the DNR must first resolve biological issues and find a hatchery.

"Assuming we can find that, we'd be prepared to do the stocking this … spring," Landwehr said, adding that there are also a lot of "unknowns about stocking a lake this size."

Dayton called on the working group — which won't meet again until next Thursday — to act quickly in providing an economic aid package for businesses near the popular fishing destination.

Lake Mille Lacs resorts and other tourism-related businesses are reporting a steep drop-off in anglers and visitors after the ban went into place.

The lake's quota for walleye this year was the smallest in history — just 40,000 pounds, compared to as much as 500,000 pounds in recent years.

Of that, about 11,400 pounds were reserved for the eight Indian bands that have rights to the fish under a treaty the U.S. Supreme Court previously upheld.

High mortality rates

In April, a DNR official said that stocking the lake would not solve the long-term problem of young walleye mortality.

Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, told legislators then that the problem at Mille Lacs was not a shortage of spawning female walleye. The DNR has yet to determine to root cause of elevated mortality for young walleye.

Dick Sternberg, retired DNR fish biologist, said that "I don't think stocking is the answer." Sternberg said there are ample small walleye fry in the lake. But, he said, "They start out gangbusters and the next year they are gone. If you stock it, that problem will still be there."

Both DNR and other fish biologists have said that small walleyes are getting eaten by other prey – including pikes and larger walleyes, which will eat their own when other food sources are in short supply. Normally, walleye prefer small perch and tullibee, but over time those species have been declining in Mille Lacs. Meanwhile, pike and bass — also predators — have been on the rise.

Paul Venturelli, a fish biologist at the University of Minnesota who last year headed a DNR panel of experts studying the walleye problem in Mille Lacs, said that in short, the walleyes "are not replacing themselves." Not fishing will help, he said, noting that "It is the only thing we can do to slow the decline of the adult population."

DNR officials hope a prolific 2013 spawn will lead to population recovery in future years.

The news conference came on the heels of the Mille Lacs working group's second meeting, where legislators of both parties pressed Landwehr on a plan to reopen walleye fishing this summer and expressed skepticism about the need for a special legislative session.

Dayton said legislators should not be pushing to reverse DNR policies. Reopening walleye fishing would violate the treaty with the eight bands that also fish on the lake, he said.

"To say to just keep fishing would just provoke the situation and take us into federal court," Dayton said.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, said in a statement that Mille Lacs community members have said they need a long-term solution to the ecological issues facing Lake Mille Lacs. He also said Dayton's administration has not put out a "concrete proposal" to address both the short-term and long-term problems facing Lake Mille Lacs. Any solution, Hackbarth said in the statement, "must expand beyond financial aid."

Matt Swenson, a Dayton spokesman, said commissioners have been very specific in their testimony about what the governor has proposed. They include low-interest loans, property tax abatement and funding for tourism marketing. "We are awaiting the feedback and input of the working group," Swenson said.

Speaking of buffer zones …

Dayton went from a current battle to one from the recent past with a visit to Farmfest later in the day in Redwood Falls, where farmers expressed concerns about the governor's signature environmental measure, a clean water law that will require buffers around waterways to prevent pollution.

"We need a buffer strip right there," joked Karl Retzlaff, pointing in the direction of Dayton. Retzlaff, who farms 1,250 acres of corn, wheat, soy and kidney beans, said farmers are worried about lost revenue from the buffer strips and "creeping regulation" that will mean more government oversight.

He said he's not reflexively anti-government and wants clean water, but feels food consumers should share more of the burden of the cost of keeping water clean from agricultural runoff.

During a question-and-answer forum with the crowd, Dayton said he was sympathetic to lost revenue and would push the Legislature to provide more funding to compensate farmers complying with the new law.