The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is formalizing plans to propose a $3.5 million field station in Garrison, Minn., to more closely manage and study the prized but troubled Mille Lacs fishery.
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said in an interview last week the leading site for a proposed lakefront facility — new to Mille Lacs — is just south of the giant walleye monument on land owned by the state Department of Transportation. If approved by the 2016 Legislature as part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding request, the office would be run by a fisheries manager hired to fill the newly created position of Mille Lacs project leader.
The high-stakes job was posted Wednesday and is open to any applicant qualified to address the serious decline of Mille Lacs walleyes that began around 2000.
“Our plan is to have a fairly complete fisheries management station on shore,” Pereira said. “Mille Lacs is so important to the state and undergoing such a complex array of changes that we feel this move is justified.”
Preliminary plans call for two DNR big-lake specialists to move to the Mille Lacs office from their current station in Aitkin. The Aitkin fisheries office would remain in place to concentrate on other lakes and rivers, including 6,000-acre Big Sandy Lake near McGregor. Facilities in the new Mille Lacs field station would include wet labs, research space, a modest cool-water hatchery and equipment storage.
It’s also possible the new site will host DNR enforcement personnel and other DNR divisions.
Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering, who sits on the 17-member Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, said he’s hoping for broad support of the plan.
“To me, it’s welcome news,” Koering said. “It shows that the department is putting resources toward the management of that lake.”
Last year’s unprecedented shutdown of walleye fishing on Mille Lacs, along with continuing harvest limitations, have burdened resort owners and others in the area who rely on fishing tourism, Koering said. Bookings are drying up and outdoorsmen are driving by, he said.
“This isn’t going to turn around overnight,” he said.
The responsibility of the Mille Lacs project leader, a job that pays in the range of $54,000 to $78,000, is to develop plans to “optimize, conserve and sustain fish populations” while enhancing sport fishing opportunities. Informing and educating the public on the long-term values of resource protection is part of the job, as is coordinating research and implementing a “fisheries investigational program.”
Pereira said the DNR is working with industry head hunters in the search for candidates.
Tom Neustrom, a professional fisherman from Grand Rapids who also sits on the advisory committee, said it’s positive for the DNR to be hiring a project leader and proposing a facility on the lake. He’d also like to see a full-scale hatchery in the area, not just for Mille Lacs but for other area waters.
Neustrom said he expects walleye stocking in Mille Lacs to be one of the first big issues as fisheries management comes to Garrison. He’s among observers who would like to see large-scale walleye stocking in the big lake.
Pereira and others say Mille Lacs doesn’t need to be stocked.
In December 2014, a Mille Lacs walleye blue ribbon panel concluded in a report that natural reproduction remains “very high” in the lake. The problem appears to be lower survival from the first winter to approximately the third fall, presumably from cannibalism by larger walleyes and/or predation by other fish.
“Stocked fish will suffer the same fate,” the report concluded.
Nonetheless, Pereira said DNR crews this spring will converge on at least one Mille Lacs walleye spawning ground to strip female fish of their eggs. Batches of fertilized eggs will be sent to the DNR hatchery in St. Paul.
The process, which still has a lot of uncertainties, will be tested again in the spring of 2017, Pereira said. It’s to prepare for a scenario in which Mille Lacs has to be stocked with walleyes to sustain its fishery. If stocking is necessary, he said, it must be done with the lake’s own genetically distinct biomass.
“If that dark day does come and we hope it doesn’t, then we will know how to do it,” Pereira said.