The people’s fish and lack of transparency

By Ron Schara Outdoor News December 18, 2015 Subscribe

If DNR and tribal fish managers hope to sooth the anger and distrust of the sport-fishing public over the collapse of the people's walleyes on Lake Mille Lacs, they need to make one big change. And it hasn't happened yet. The people need more transparency when government is dealing with the people's fish.

Transparency? Oh yes, it's pretty obvious these days we like the word. You read it or hear it said just about every day. Editorial writers and newspaper reporters use the word a lot in stories when they suspect government secrecy or hanky panky. They hop on a soapbox and declare in ink: “There needs to be more transparency in the way government operates."

We all nod our heads in agreement. And we're glad somebody is watching those folks who collect and spend our tax money.

Minnesota long has had a reputation for "clean" government. Open is another word for it. We have open meeting 1aws that apply to almost every gathering of official folks who need to decide stuff. The open meeting law is so tough that too many committee members head to the men's room at the same time, they could be in violation. Frankly, open meeting laws are a good thing. They keep folks honest—transparent—when dealing with the people's business.

Yet, when Minnesota is dealing with the people's walleyes on Mille Lacs, complete transparency is lacking. Oh yes, the DNR holds public meetings and has had "blue ribbon" walleye experts talk walleye management. But ever since the courts ordered co-management of Mille Lacs' fish, DNR and tribal fish managers regularly hold closed meetings regarding the people's walleyes. And our major newspapers, who so love transparency, are editorially silent about the walleye secrets.

No doubt, DNR and tribal fish management meetings are on the up and up. No hanky panky. Nothing illegal. Just minor disputes over fish harvest stuff.

But who knows? Without transparency, the public (all Minnesotans, including tribal members) is in the dark about how fish-management decisions are made. We are left only with the final decisions, and today we know those Mille Lacs fish management plans were, at best, faulty, ill-advised, or biologically inept.

The DNR continues to insist that tribal netting played no role in the walleye collapse. And that might be true. But without transparency, the public is in the dark about how many tribal nets go into the lake every year and who counts the walleyes being netted. Is every netted fish actually counted by somebody other than the netting party? Do the Wisconsin band netters follow the same rules?

Some sport anglers contend they've watched tribal boats come to shore with a tub of netted walleyes and nobody was waiting to record the catch. Is this true? Who knows?

If the DNR knows, or if the DNR has this information, does anybody remember hearing it? If not, why not? If you're seeking a way to disarm or eliminate the accusations that tribal netting is bad, the best way is—you guessed it—transparency. Instead, DNR and tribal leaders have insisted on secret negotiations making decisions about the people's walleyes in meetings closed to the people.

When Gov. Mark Dayton traveled last fall to Mille Lacs to hear the public, he was shocked by the level of public anger toward his agency, the DNR. It's likely that some of that anger--maybe a lot of it--could be attributed to the secrecy practiced and endorsed by a public agency and tribal governments.

Following the governor's appearance, the DNR announced formation of a citizen's advisory committee to help steer future fish-management decisions. The DNR also said that some members of the advisory committee would be allowed to sit in on the fish-management negotiations between state and tribal fish managers.

Finally, a big step toward transparency. But it didn't last long.

A few weeks later, the DNR said tribal officials objected to the idea of having one or two advisory members attend the meetings. The DNR rolled over and concurred. So once again, secrecy is back. Once again, fish-management meetings about the people's walleyes are closed to the people. And once again, the media folks who so love transparency in government say nothing.

Meanwhile, the fishing public's distrust goes on. Sadly, it doesn't need to be this way.

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