Even those Minnesotans who rarely venture outside of the Twin Cities and those who rarely if ever wet a line in one of this state’s thousands of lakes and streams should take note of last week’s disturbing news from Lake Mille Lacs.
It’s likely that walleye fishing will be halted on the 200-square-mile lake in early August — an unprecedented step in response to a plummeting walleye population. The move would be a major body blow for resort owners and the state’s $2 billion fishing industry.
“I thought we had hit the bottom on this lake, but this is a new, lower bottom,” Bill Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort, told the Star Tribune. “I’m in total shock. I never thought this would happen.”
It’s happening after the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) set the lowest annual harvest quota in history for walleyes on Mille Lacs — 40,000 pounds, compared with a 500,000-pound total as recently as 2012 — because the walleye population is at a record low. Sport anglers can take 28,600 pounds this year, while the quota for the eight Ojibwe Chippewa bands is 11,400, and both groups are already near their yearly limits. The DNR and the bands co-manage the walleye population and set annual quotas under terms of a federal court ruling upheld by the Supreme Court in 1999.
In an e-mail to an editorial writer, state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, blamed the DNR for its “unwillingness to re-examine the provisions to which they have agreed with the eight Ojibwe bands on management,” including controversial spring netting. The DNR, however, says netting isn’t to blame for the lake’s walleye decline, which it says is caused by myriad factors, including larger fish feeding on young walleye.
The bands are an easy target for the frustration of local businesses and sport fishermen, but the DNR is not in an enviable negotiating position given the 1999 decision. The best argument it might make to tribal leaders is that no one wins if the overall walleye population continues to spiral and that their help is needed as part of any broad strategy.
For the DNR, all possible remedies — from new bait, lure and limit restrictions to an aggressive stocking and hatchery program — must be considered as the agency continues to develop more effective short- and long-term management plans for the lake. As Star Tribune columnist Dennis Anderson wrote, the current strategies clearly are not working.
Gov. Mark Dayton has asked the DNR to delay a decision to shut down walleye fishing until the results of the agency’s next harvest survey are in on July 31. (Anglers will be able to fish for other species regardless of what the DNR decides, but the prized walleye is what lures the majority of fishers to Mille Lacs.)
Dayton should also push for more transparency in Mille Lacs management. For too long, despite the criticism of Erickson and others, the DNR and Ojibwe have held closed fisheries management meetings — a practice that only serves to fuel distrust among those who are excluded.
Meanwhile, the hospitality industry that depends on sport fishing on the lake needs help, and likely only state government can provide it through the kinds of programs typically used to address natural-disaster recovery. State and federal officials were quick to offer aid to turkey farmers hurt by the spring bird flu outbreak. A spokesman for Dayton said Friday that officials are putting together an aid package for Mille Lacs businesses, although details were still being worked out.
“This is a natural disaster — the dilemma on Mille Lacs,” Erickson said last week. It’s also a Minnesota problem — not just a Mille Lacs issue — and Dayton will show he recognizes its significance if he follows through on what his spokesman said is a planned trip to the lake sometime this week.