Gov. Mark Dayton has stepped into the management of Minnesota’s premier walleye lake by allowing Mille Lacs’ fishing season to continue — under a catch-and-release rule — even after anglers have surpassed a controversial quota established with Indian tribes.
It’s the first time a governor has interceded since Minnesota began co-managing Mille Lacs with local Chippewa tribes nearly 20 years ago.
“Closing the walleye fishing season on Mille Lacs would devastate area businesses and communities,” Dayton said Tuesday. “The state’s fisheries experts have assured me that continuing catch-and-release on Mille Lacs will not negatively impact the health of the walleye fishery.”
Leaders of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe quickly challenged Dayton’s conclusion, saying they were disappointed in his announcement and issuing a sternly worded rebuttal.
“We have not seen the data the state used … but our biologists believe the state’s decision to exceed its share of the agreed safe harvestable limit will prolong and could negatively impact the ability to rebuild the Mille Lacs walleye population in the future,” said Susan Klapel, the Mille Lacs band’s commissioner of natural resources.
Tribal officials also questioned the state’s refusal to prohibit live bait “or take other measures to further reduce walleye mortalities.”
Anglers and resort owners, however, applauded Dayton’s intervention as an attempt to save the local economy.
“I think the governor did the right thing,” said fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, Minn., a member of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, a state-appointed group. “I think Mille Lacs has a lot of walleyes in it, and I think the DNR’s fall population assessment will show that.”
The annual walleye quota on Mille Lacs has dropped precipitously, from a half-million pounds four years ago to 40,000 pounds this year. About two-thirds of that quota — or 28,600 pounds — was for sport anglers; one-third was for the eight Chippewa bands that have treaty rights to share fishing on the lake.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) imposed strict catch-and-release rules at Mille Lacs this season, following last year’s midseason shutdown, which was prompted by a 30-year record low walleye population.
Dylan Jennings, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, noted that the tribes had foregone netting on the lake this year in a dedicated effort to restore the walleye population. “The bands are currently and continually under their quota,” he said. “They had expected the state to do the same.”
“It was a decision I took very seriously,” Dayton said late Tuesday when reached by phone. “Closing the lake to walleye fishing was just devastating … to those who depend upon the lake for their livelihood. I just couldn’t put them through that again.”
This year’s angler activity increased rapidly in July with warm water temperatures and high catch rates.
The most recent creel estimate pointed to 37,922 pounds of walleye harvested this season, well above the limit negotiated between the state and tribes.
Many, if not all, of the fish had succumbed to hooking mortality, meaning those that die after being caught and released, an aggregate that is included in the harvest quota.
But DNR officials say summer creel data indicate that regulations are successfully conserving the lake’s spawning population of walleye. Walleye hatched in 2013, thought to be the most crucial generation of fish for future sustainability of the lake, seem largely unaffected by hooking mortality, said DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira.
Allowing anglers to remain on the water through the fall should have minimal impact on Minnesota’s state fish, Pereira said. “The DNR remains committed to managing the lake as a world-class fishery for the benefit of all users,” Pereira said.
Even so, the walleye dispute continues to be a sore point locally. Linda Eno, co-owner of Twin Pines Resort with her husband, Bill, said the new rules have hurt their business, with vacancies during prime summer months.
“They’re gone. Not only because they can’t keep a fish, but … because it really hurts their heart to see what’s going on on this lake,” Eno said of fishermen. “At least with catch-and-release you have a chance to catch a trophy and have the thrill of reeling in a big fish.”
Dayton said he will meet with the DNR and affected tribes to assess the situation for next season, which begins in early May.
That could entail re-evaluating current restrictions, including the possibility of raising the walleye quotas.
“It’s not a workable formula [right now],” he said.