Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders moved quickly to address a crisis on Lake Mille Lacs as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) declared an end to walleye fishing season there Monday night because of a severe population decline.
Although bass, muskie and northern pike fishing continue, tourism at the lake is expected to suffer during what is usually a busy season.
A working group announced Monday and co-chaired by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, is scheduled to meet Tuesday to set a path forward.
At a Monday news conference, Dayton acknowledged tough times at the lake, where many resort owners blame state government for the problem. But Dayton is optimistic. "I also believe this is the beginning of a brighter future for walleye fishing on Mille Lacs," he said.
The governor reiterated his call for a special session so legislators can approve financial aid for the region, including zero-interest loans, property-tax abatements and advertising spending. He wants the special session to take place the week of Aug. 17. Dayton said he will not only request but "insist" that the legislation be narrowly focused on the Lake Mille Lacs walleye crisis, threatening to veto the rest.
Legislators are skeptical.
"What I suspect will happen is that it will be a cattle call to every legislator who feels like they have an industry that's struggling. What about my district? What about my lake?" said Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, long one of Dayton's staunchest allies, said there is a rationale to help the businesses because state action is limiting walleye fishing. But he said that members of his caucus want to learn more about the issue and that "the question of precedence is on people's minds," referring to pleas for help from one industry possibly leading to demands from others.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who represents the south side of the lake, criticized the DNR's long-term management of the lake and also questioned potential aid for business owners, even though her constituents could benefit directly. "We could be setting a precedent we might regret," she said.
Hackbarth, who is chairman of the House Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee, said the best economic aid package would have been to keep the season open for catch-and-release only, a solution he pitched without success to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. Barring that, Hackbarth said state government should help the tourism businesses because government created the problem. Unlike Dayton, Hackbarth said the state should consider grants to the suffering businesses because they have said more loans, even at zero interest, won't help.
Dayton, who said he prefers to fish for muskie, will go to Mille Lacs on Saturday to fish. He appeared at a town-hall meeting in Isle, Minn., on Friday, and told several hundred area residents — to great applause — that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe would forgo their walleye harvest for the next year.
Indian bands are entitled to fishing rights stemming from an 1837 treaty that was upheld in a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and they do not take as much of the walleye population as they are legally entitled to, Landwehr said. He said their fishing methods are unrelated to the population decline.
Dayton praised Landwehr's leadership effusively and reaffirmed his confidence in the commissioner. Dayton did, however, say that there would be staffing changes at the local DNR office. "A lot of people in DNR need a course in customer, constituent relations," the governor said.
The quota at Mille Lacs has dropped to 40,000 pounds from 500,000 pounds just a few years ago. Local residents accuse the DNR of mismanaging the lake.
Landwehr said Mille Lacs is a complex ecosystem that has developed a "predatory imbalance," with scientists now considering the idea that mature walleye are eating fingerling walleye to survive.
With a solid 2013 spawning season, the walleye population could recover quickly in the years to come, he said.