The Republican and DFL co-chairs of a working group tasked with saving the walleye tourism on Lake Mille Lacs told state officials Wednesday they have a simple solution to the problem: Bring back walleye fishing.
Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, repeatedly told Commissioner Tom Landwehr of the Department of Natural Resources that the quickest relief for resort owners in the area would be to reopen walleye season, which ended Monday because of a walleye population decline.
The working group session underscored the dicey political situation Gov. Mark Dayton walked into when he began discussing a special session to give aid to the struggling resort industry and Mille Lacs region — the Legislature is home to 201 members who have their own agendas and, unlike Dayton, must face the voters in 2016.
Tomassoni encouraged Landwehr to begin negotiating with the eight tribal bands who have an agreement about the walleye quota that stems from an 1837 treaty and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1999.
When Tomassoni mentioned three weeks to reopen the season, Hackbarth wanted even faster action.
The season ended because the state hit its walleye limit of 28,000 pounds and now is actually a bit over that record low quota.
Tomassoni said after the meeting that while a month of fishing would not do irreparable damage to the walleye, it could help save the lake resorts without requiring a special legislative session.
Landwehr said the DNR will re-examine the possibility of reopening of walleye season and laid out a series of measures to improve relations with local residents in the short term and restore walleye health in the long term.
But he also said an immediate reversal is unwise, citing the current fragility of the population and the legal problem of breaking an agreement with the tribal communities.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe announced Friday they would forgo their own walleye harvest for the next year.
Any move by the state to blow through the quota would likely be viewed dimly by tribal communities.
James Zorn, executive administrator for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said, “I know the tribes are pleased the state is trying to protect the resource and pleased with the honor and respect the governor has shown in living up to the agreement.”
Hackbarth, who is in touch with House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said a special session to help the tourism industry in Mille Lacs is premature at the moment. He said House Republicans are unsure they have the votes for an aid package and are hearing from members about their own troubled regions and industries that may also deserve help.
State officials laid out more details on a potential aid package, including zero-interest loans with deferred payments for two years, tax abatements and more marketing for Mille Lacs. It could total as much as $20 million. State officials do not have the authority to spend the money on these specialized programs without legislative approval.
At least for now, Republicans are skeptical.
“We can’t just willy-nilly call a special session and throw money at the problem, because that doesn’t solve the problem,” Hackbarth said.
The working group will meet again Aug. 13.
Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042