Want to be a DNR fisheries biologist at Mille Lacs because you think you can solve the walleye crisis there? OK, give it a try — but first, you must acknowledge the complexity of the challenge.
The DNR’s official position is that netting of walleyes in spring by eight Chippewa bands doesn’t harm the lake’s population of these fish. That might be true, based on various measured criteria. But other factors must be considered.
In 1998 — a year before the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed 5-4 that the eight bands had reserved off-reservation hunting and fishing rights in what is now a 12-county (all or part) region of east-central Minnesota, rights that the court said had not been extinguished by subsequent treaties and/or actions — the present co-management of Mille Lacs fisheries was established. Fundamentally, this means that the eight signatory bands and the state must share resources in the 12 counties, including not only fish, but wildlife such as deer and even migratory birds, such as ducks.
OK, who gets what percentage of the fish and game?
That hasn't formally been established in the 1837 case. But similar court divisions of resources in other, similar cases allocate 50 percent to each party.
Regarding Mille Lacs fisheries, this split hasn’t occurred yet. But the bands have steadily increased their share. Now, however, with the lake’s walleye population plummeting, the division, as it were, is a moot point.
Still, the fact that a given resource — in this case Mille Lacs walleyes — must be divided is at the heart of the challenge to DNR managers. Because before it can be divided, it must be counted. Then agreement must be made about the portion of the population that can be taken by the two parties without harming the resource. This is called the “safe allowable harvest.’’
What's so difficult about counting the lake’s walleyes?
Just about everything. Yes, there are established methods to count fish, by conducting survey netting and creel (angler catch) counts. And these methods can be quite sophisticated, as DNR biologists and research experts use computer modeling techniques to try to get a handle on what’s swimming in the lake. Only then can they decide the percentage of the population that can be harvested.
What’s the reliability of these methods?
That’s the thing. The DNR and the band biologists in the first dozen years or so might not have had the handle on the lake’s walleye population they thought they did. But even if their population models were more-or-less correct, they now believe they overestimated by a significant margin how many fish they could take from the lake. Their earlier belief was that they could take 24 percent of the lake’s walleyes 14 inches and longer as the safe allowable harvest. Now they believe harvests that big might have contributed to the lake’s walleye decline — in part.
This also explains why the safe allowable harvest, or quota, this year of 40,000 pounds of Mille Lacs walleyes pales so dramatically to the 500,000 pounds of only three years ago, in 2012. Now biologists believe they can only allow the harvest — which includes fish caught and released that later die, again an estimate — of the number of breeding fish that will in the course of a year be replaced by fish that replaced the harvested fish. Thus the dramatic quota differences in such a short time span.
So, is it possible — given the biologists’ track record since 1998 — to accurately assess the Mille Lacs walleyes? That’s the heart of the matter. Meaning, while it might be true that the netting of walleyes in spring hasn’t/doesn’t contribute to the overall problem at Mille Lacs (but it might; more in a minute), the concept of resource division put in place by the 1999 court decision might be very difficult, if not impossible, to execute without problems arising.
I thought part of the problem was that anglers and the bands were all targeting the same size fish, basically those in the 15-18 inch range.
Biologists believe that also was part of the problem, yes. But it’s not easily resolved, because the quotas are based in pounds, not number of fish. So if the bands and the DNR had agreed — or sometime do agree — to allow for the taking of a wider distribution of walleyes from Mille Lacs, such as some fish greater than 21 inches, the quotas would be reached much more quickly.
What about the angler slot limits the DNR has imposed, essentially to drive angler harvest to a particular sized fish?
Many anglers believe this is part of the problem, and some DNR biologists agree. It’s possible, they believe, as Mille Lacs management critic Dick Sternberg, a former DNR fisheries biologist, has said, that the DNR created a big part of the Mille Lacs problem by allowing a huge big-fish “eating machine’’ to be established in the lake, not just walleyes, but northern pike as well — fish that are at the heart of the lake’s apparent current problem, which is too many big fish eating too many little walleyes, preventing them from reaching an age at which they can reproduce.
The DNR talks a lot about the lake’s changing makeup — with invasive species and all.
Yes, these are a wild card. Zebra mussels. Spiny water fleas. Milfoil. The lake has all of this, plus the aforementioned (perhaps) larger northern pike population and a burgeoning smallmouth bass population.
OK, I’m not sure I want to be a DNR fisheries biologist. All of this seems complex.
It is, and we haven’t even gotten to the part about climate change and possible trends of warmer lake water in Mille Lacs, which can affect some of the lake’s prey species, especially tullibees. The other fish seemingly in relatively short supply are perch, which are a big deal to walleyes. Whether perch are just rising and falling in number as part of a cycle, or whether they are experiencing other problems, no one seems to know.
Do I have any other problems to consider?
Here’s a big one. As DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has said (paraphrasing) “We don’t manage fish, we manage anglers.’’ Critical to that is that angler regulations set in a given year are the result of biologists assessing data that is at least a year old. Consequently, to the extent that regulations can affect fish populations, they are usually dated by at least a year.
I give up. Let’s just stock the sum-buck.
That might be where we’re headed if the lake’s walleye decline isn’t stemmed. But even that, at Mille Lacs, is complex. Here’s the deal: Mille Lacs walleyes represent a unique gene pool among Minnesota walleyes, and DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira — who has extensive hands-on knowledge and experience from the re-stocking of Red and Upper Red lakes — believes that if stocking should become necessary, it should be done only with Mille Lacs walleyes.
This would be highly unusual. Elsewhere in the state, walleyes are stocked from one of a large handful of collection points, such as Lake Vermilion in the northeast and Cutfoot Sioux in the north-central. In spring, walleyes heading to spawning areas are netted, then the walleyes are stripped of their eggs and the eggs fertilized from captured male walleyes, all on location. The eggs then are transported to hatcheries, where they soon are hatched as fry, or little fish. Some of these are stocked as fry. Others are allowed to grow over the summer in dedicated wetlands and ponds, before being collected and stocked as larger small fish.
So let’s collect eggs from Mille Lacs walleyes.
That’s possible. But because the lake is infested with such a smorgasbord of invasive species, biosecurity issues would exist in transporting the fertilized Mille Lacs eggs to hatcheries, and also in keeping the eggs at the hatcheries. A better alternative would be to have a hatchery on the shores of Mille Lacs. These would address the invasive species issues. As importantly, it would allow the state’s present hatcheries to continue doing what they’re doing, which is already more or less at capacity, without adding Mille Lacs eggs to worry about.
So let’s build a hatchery already!
Hold your horses. That would require bonding money approved by the Legislature. It’s likely the idea will be floated in the coming session. If approved, money would be appropriated July 1, 2016, and the hatchery wouldn’t come online for at least a year after that. To boot, the DNR is suggesting that a Mille Lacs research station be combined with the hatchery. All of this is just an idea at this point. But it might be critical if the decline of walleyes in Mille Lacs can’t be stemmed.
If the problem is so complex, why aren’t people more understanding of the “between a rock and a hard place’’ the DNR finds itself in?
1) When it comes to hunting and fishing and the management of game, people who participate have deeply held, very personal interests in the outcomes, measured in many cases by their extreme desire to replicate great times they had previously while successfully participating in the hunting and/or fishing activity in question. (In psycho-babble, this is called “self actualizing’’). Take Mille Lacs: People who don’t fish and/or don’t have institutional knowledge about the lake don’t realize how many walleyes it once produced, the businesses those walleyes supported and the lives they shaped.
2) The DNR, like all government agencies (and other entities), can get things wrong, and has over the years. Plus, the agency seems at times not to have a sense of urgency in its assessment of and responses to problems like Mille Lacs. And they’re an easy target — witness the comments that follow Star Tribune stories not only about Mille Lacs walleye management, but deer management, pheasant management and duck management.
Don’t know-it-all outdoor writers and columnists just make it worse when they comment on these issues?
By asking the question, you’re showing you might indeed have what it takes to work at the DNR or a similar resource agency. But read your history: In the past hundred or so years, since the founding of the modern conservation movement, the comments and criticisms of outdoors writers and advocates periodically have played critical roles in shaping policy and in particular prodding large agencies that occasionally are hamstrung by their own inertia, blinded by navel-gazing or otherwise are incapable of addressing significant resource problems in a timely and effective manner.
Gov. Mark Dayton has told the DNR he wants a new team working on the Mille Lacs issue. Indications are that team hasn’t been developed yet. Also a legislative working group is addressing the issue. Meanwhile, opinions abound.