Mille Lacs treaty management: state’s day of reckoning is here!

By Joe Fellegy – Outdoor News – February 7, 2014

Just five weeks into 2014, the annual devastating Mille Lacs news cycle is cranked up and more negatively powerful than ever before. Thank the too-costly workings of “treaty fisheries management” and official inaction to protect state and citizen interests. Expect more horrible impacts on Mille Lacs-connected businesses and people. Understandably, there’s a new level of impatience with state leaders, who show more loyalty to a flawed system than to their own citizens and to a major state natural resource, Mille Lacs.

The shocking 42,900-pound 2014 “safe allowable harvest” (quota) for Mille Lacs walleye anglers, announced by DNR last week, is the lowest-ever through 17 years of treaty management. (Historically, fisheries biologists considered 500,000-pound Mille Lacs walleye harvests normal and acceptable.) Even with fewer walleyes, a mediocre bite, and reduced angling pressure, this cap could be reached by mid-June, by late July, or whenever. What then?

Add it all up. Fish population quandaries. DNR’s management challenges under a system where “common sense” and the “right way” often can’t apply. The only major gill-net fishery in the country targeting spawning walleyes with miles of 100-foot tribal nets strung over zebra-mussel-covered rocks. Anglers punished with “hooking mortality” assessments for releasing fish, adding to shutdown worries.

(Countless fishing waters carry bag limits, size limits, tournament rules, and angler ethics promoting release. Naturally, some released muskies, northerns, bass, crappies, and walleyes die. But, except at Mille Lacs, conservation-minded anglers and fisheries managers focus on the released-fish majorities that survive. Where in Minnesota, other than at Mille Lacs, does a fishing community face shutdown threats via “hooking mortality” assessments?)

Public confidence has plummeted. Many observers worry about the futures of walleye-oriented Mille Lacs resorts and fishing-related businesses. Mille Lacs has traditionally starred as the state’s largest walleye fishery, in terms of angler use and overall walleye catch, and has hosted the state’s largest ice-fishing community. Given the new 42,900-pound walleye quota, can 2014-2015 Mille Lacs ice-fishing even happen? (Hey, kids! Winter-lazy smallies won’t fill the gap! Neither will those darn walleye-eating muskies. They’re sluggish in winter, and their numbers are way down.)

Typically, the Mille Lacs news flood begins now, following the annual late-January Treaty Fisheries Technical Committee meeting where Minnesota DNR and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission review data and determine new safe allowable harvests. Then come announcements about angling bag limits and size restrictions; reports on the spawning-time tribal gill-net harvests of walleyes and other species; periodic updates on the nearness of both sides to their respective quotas; guesstimates on walleye hooking-mortality tonnage assessed to state anglers; possible in-season reg changes; and speculation about possible “shutdown” of the sport fishery.

This year, the flow of ominous headlines began a month early. DNR put Mille Lacs prominently on its Roundtable agenda last month. A Jan. 21 headline-generating DNR press release hyped its “new plan” for Mille Lacs. You know, that new Blue Ribbon Panel of Outside Experts, plus new state aid in promoting non-walleye Mille Lacs tourism themes. And now comes the present media blast. Tally the newspaper pages and column inches, the radio and TV air time, plus the Internet hyper-chatter. Translated into ad dollars, this barrage—forced by “treaty fisheries management”—pelts the Mille Lacs community with the equivalent of millions in negative advertising. Even hot walleye bites bring scary news about “exceeding the quota.” (Where else is good fishing a crisis?)

And so much more

• Certain journalists and politicos have ill-served the public by suggesting that court affirmations of basic treaty-rights harvests arid tribal co-management somehow affirm tribal managers’ decisions to allow gill-net use, and affirm all aspects of the “treaty management” system. No treaty or court ordered gill nets in Mille Lacs, or set in stone the specific approaches employed by state and tribal managers, or freed managers from the scrutiny and hard questions (smart and stupid) that policymakers should face.

• Contrary to Minnesota DNR’s past claims, state government hands aren’t tied. Neither are their mouths taped shut. No court or treaty rendered Minnesota government impotent. And the big Mille Lacs treaty case needn’t be reopened for the state to use its legal and political clout to push for needed change. Consider the enormous costs of the Mille Lacs fiasco—the negative impacts on fish, on Mille Lacs-connected economies, on state resource managers, on a community’s social fabric, on the lake’s image, and even on citizen well-being. If state leaders remain callously indifferent then maybe endangered Mille Lacs-related businesses, and suffering others, should be exempted from state taxes.

• State politicians and media wrongly free taxpayer-funded tribal governments and management bureaucracies, like GLIFWC from accountability. No hard questions about their policies, priorities, funding sources, political influence, and their misguided “racism” charges against those who discuss, debate, or question their actions. Tribal-government campaign contributions to state legislators, including those on Senate and House natural resource committees? Muscular tribal lobbying efforts?

Mille Lacs is victimized by gone-mad public policy and intolerable impacts on business, resource management, and people. There’s near-universal agreement that the walleye gill-netting and related “treaty management” must go. Will state government move to defend state and citizen interests?

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