The state’s top wildlife officials will adopt an array of new strategies for Lake Mille Lacs in an effort to solve the problems that forced an abrupt halt to walleye fishing there in July.
Next year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will ask the Legislature for money to launch a pilot fish-stocking program and hatchery so it can be ready to boost the young walleye population if that’s necessary down the road. It will ask the federal government for a permit to kill fish-eating cormorants to reduce pressure on small fish. And it will create a new advisory committee made up of 12 to 16 people from the Mille Lacs community, including business owners, guides and anglers, to help inform future management decisions.
Mille Lacs, the state’s most popular walleye lake, will become the sole charge of a newly appointed project manager and a crew of DNR staff. Management of the lake will be based at DNR headquarters in St. Paul, rather than in Aitkin, where it is now, and a new office will open on the lake that will include educational programming, outreach staff and community meeting rooms.
“It’s the only lake [in Minnesota] that will have this level of intensity,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “It will be unique. But we have to put everything on the table to restore it.”
The DNR abruptly called a halt to walleye fishing in July after anglers met the annual quota that was set between the state and the eight Chippewa bands that co-manage the lake with the state.
This year the harvest was set at 40,000 pounds — 11,400 for the tribes, and the rest for anglers — far less than the half-million pounds from just a few years ago. But because of warmer water, invasive species and other factors, the quota was met earlier than expected.
Landwehr said the agency is doing everything it can outside a special legislative session and without the legal authority to change its harvesting agreements with the bands. Gov. Mark Dayton had proposed a special session to provide financial support and perhaps property tax relief to the resorts and fishing businesses that have been hurt by the early shutdown of the walleye season, but lawmakers balked.
The state still has to share some of its ideas for management of the fishery with the Chippewa bands at meetings this winter that will be closed to the public.
“The fisheries committee will have some very interesting things to talk about,” said James Zorn, executive administrator for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which advises the bands.“There are some good ideas, but they require coordination with the tribes,” he said.
An advisory committee and sharper DNR management focus could help solve some of the problems, some observers said.
“We are on a downhill slide, that’s for sure,” said Greg Fisher of Fisher’s Resort. “It wouldn’t hurt.”
But some said they are skeptical that a hatchery and stocking will solve the lake’s walleye problems. Landwehr and other fish biologists at the DNR have said that there are plenty of big fish to spawn, and lots of eggs and small fry.
But not enough of them survive their first year because increasingly they are being eaten by other fish like pike and smallmouth bass.
“In this case, it looks like it is a predation problem,” said Dick Sternberg, a former DNR fish biologist who has studied Mille Lacs. “There’s cannibalism and predators.”
Landwehr said the DNR intends to start a pilot hatchery program. A hatchery allows scientists to do research on what happens to the fry because they can be marked and tracked throughout their lives.
“We want to make sure we are ready when the time comes,” he said. “The lake is producing a lot of eggs and fry, but we can’t assume that will always be the case.”
He hopes the joint Chippewa and state fisheries committee will consider allowing one or two members of the new advisory committee to attend the meetings, which have always been closed to the public — long a sore point with those in the community whose livelihoods are affected by the decisions made behind closed doors.
Sternberg said the DNR will have to do more than what it’s proposing. It has to alter the quota agreement with the bands and the fishing regulations that over the years have created a walleye population with too many big fish that will soon die off.
“Their hands are tied,” he said. “Until they come up with another type of agreement, it’s going to be difficult to solve the fish problem.”