Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday he expects to call a special legislative session for lawmakers to help businesses on Lake Mille Lacs that are struggling due to the decline of walleye fishing.
The lake’s walleye season could come to an abrupt halt in early August — months before the traditional close.
The Department of Natural Resources likely will be forced to act because the limit on the sport fishing harvest could be reached at the end of this month, just as resort owners enter their equivalent of the Christmas shopping season.
The special session could be called possibly by the end of next week. Dayton said not acting would devastate the industry and the region as a whole.
“Government exists to serve the people and when people are, through no fault of their own especially, put in dire straits, that’s when our government needs to be as responsive as it can be,” Dayton said at a news conference Wednesday.
The walleye harvest quota, as high as 500,000 pounds in some recent years, but has dwindled to 40,000 pounds this year due to population decline.
Dayton and legislators are considering an aid package that would include property tax abatements, refinancing of existing loans carried by the resorts and more money to promote and advertise the region. He said that a majority of the roughly 100 tourism-related businesses in the Mille Lacs area are earning less than $500,000. Dayton estimated the potential relief package at $10 million, though that figure could change.
State officials were quick to emphasize that while walleye season may be ending, the lake still offers good fishing of northern pike, smallmouth bass and muskie.
Dayton met for more than an hour Wednesday with resort owners, local elected officials and members of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council, including executive director Tina Chapman, who owns a resort in the region. Chapman said they are “very pleased the governor is taking this seriously.”
Legislators seemed generally supportive of Dayton’s efforts.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, released a statement through his spokeswoman, in which he pledged to join Dayton in addressing the problem.
“The threat of a shorter walleye season on Mille Lacs is very concerning,” Daudt said. “Together we will examine the problem and determine the best solution.”
Dayton’s reaction to the crisis did not come without criticism from a Republican lawmaker, however.
Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, whose district includes the lake, questioned the DNR’s management of the walleye population: “I’m an old navy ship driver, and when you run your ship aground, you’ve got a problem,” he said.
He also was critical of Dayton’s public reaction to the crisis. “Be careful to ring alarm bells that could make it worse,” Lueck said, concerned that potential tourists would be dissuaded from booking trips to the region if they see bad walleye headlines.
Chapman echoed some of Lueck’s worries, saying that resort owners are “concerned that what the DNR is doing now isn’t working.”
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he understands the frustration: “Everyone is anxious and fearful. We’re working with Mother Nature, so you can’t just turn a knob and fix things.” He said DNR officials were blindsided by the rapid population decline in July.
The situation is complicated, Landwehr said, by tribal rights and court decisions that give local Indian bands 28.5 percent of the allowable harvest, with the state retaining the rest. In addition, he said, as environmental laws have worked to make the water cleaner, it has become less fertile with the algae blooms that were artificially propping up some of the fish population.
Susan Klapel, Commissioner of Natural Resources and the Environment for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said Mille Lacs is not the only lake facing such challenges. “Climate change is impacting lakes, streams and ecosystems across the region in complex ways, and in Mille Lacs we’re seeing that play out in terms of walleye decline in the lake,” she said. Klapel said that “everyone agrees that steps are needed to improve the health of Lake Mille Lacs, and the Mille Lacs Band continues to support the measures proposed by the Minnesota DNR.”
Landwehr sounded one bright note about the future. Because walleyes had a prolific spawning year in 2013, he said, restrictions could ease in coming years as the fish age.
Dayton said he wants the special session soon to get needed help to businesses quickly. He also said the session should be narrowly focused on walleye. He does not want to address the ongoing issue of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional and summoned state officials for a hearing on remedies next month.
Along with legislative leaders, Dayton is creating a working group to craft solutions in advance of the session.