Saving Mille Lacs: Minnesota's Walleye Stadium
By Ron Schara – Outdoor News, April 12, 2013

The bad news gets worse. One of the best natural walleye lakes in North America has now become a tragedy.

The number of walleyes swimming in Lake Mille Lacs these days, according to DNR surveys, has declined to a 40-year low. Minnesota's largest single lake fishing economy is now threatened with collapse as dozens of resorts and businesses face uncertainty when the 2013 walleye season opens.

And worse, it’s a walleye crisis of our own making. Mother nature didn't cause this collapse of the state's most popular sport fish. Rather, this is a story of walleye abuse on Mille Lacs, including walleye-collapse warnings ignored by state and tribal fish managers.

For more than a decade, Mille Lacs has been subjected to a combination of voodoo walleye rules by the DNR and spring netting assaults by eight bands of Ojibwe. Since 1998, the DNR and the bands have relied on paper walleyes to set harvest quotas on real walleyes. The results are now in—a population collapse of real walleyes.

It’s time for a reality check.

Those Minnesota anglers who love the lake and its history should be outraged.

Those Minnesotans who depend on Mille Lacs for a job or a livelihood should be outraged.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe whose ancestors settled on its shores and who now prosper with the largest business on those same shores should be outraged over the lake's decline in walleyes.

Gov. Mark Dayton should be outraged and maybe he is, but he's been silent.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr should be outraged and maybe he is, but his DNR fish managers just held a news conference to announce their new strict walleye restrictions on MtD6 Lacs. More of the same voodoo. DNR's new walleye game plan was not only underwhelming but almost guaranteed to achieve two results: harm resorts and businesses around the lake and accomplish nothing long-term to boost the lake's walleye fortunes.

Tribal fish managers also played with mirrors. The Ojibwe bands agreed to reduce their walleye-netting quota by 50 percent to something like 70,000 pounds but that changes nothing. In reality, the new netting quota is the same netting harvest attained last year and, what's more, continues to target the size of walleyes that DNR now declares need protecting from hook and line. As Star Tribune columnist Dennis Anderson wrote: "The bands are using nets during the spring spawn to virtually ensure a highly effective harvest of some of the same fish that, come the sport-fishing opener on May 11, everyone else will try to protect."

Are we watching fish management lunacy? Where are you Gov. Dayton? Isn't it time (and long overdue) to hold a Mille Lacs summit? Get everybody in a room to discuss the lake's walleyes ills and do so with everything on the table in a transparent fashion, free of political correctness and racial overtones.

If you start shouting racial slurs, you're going out the door. We don't need that. Rather, the DNR and tribal leaders need to be present to hear and respond to other ideas for the sake of the lake's fisheries. I find it interesting that former DNR fish biologist, Dick Sternberg, actually predicted the lake's walleye population demise more man a decade ago. Sternberg based his dreary walleye forecast on the DNR's mode of fish management when tribal netting began. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

Secondly, the Mille Lacs Band should be asked to consider a moratorium on spring netting and, instead, harvest its quota by fall netting or hook and line or a combination of both. History says the lake needs a break from gill netting. If you look back at walleye population issues in recent decades—Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, Red Lake—all have a common denominator, gill netting walleyes. Gill nets are effective and invite over-harvest. It's that simple.

DNR officials seem reluctant—as least publicly—to ask the bands to temporarily modify their spring harvest methods. On the contrary, the Mille Lacs Band has a history of wanting to be good neighbors and is equally concerned about the lake's walleye condition. Plus, there's nothing wrong with asking.

Thirdly, DNR's new walleye restrictions for 2013 ought to be modified before the season opens. DNR seems unwilling to target the lake's unnaturally high number of large walleyes, despite the problems attributed to them. Perhaps the quota can be modified to be a hybrid between pounds and/or numbers. That’s not going to happen unless Gov. Dayton speaks up.

The DNR also did nothing to reduce hooking-mortality losses, despite anglers request to do so. Hooking mortality estimates could easily be reduced if DNR had listened years ago.

Sternberg, a fish biologist who also sees fishing from the angler's viewpoint suggested these commonsense steps:

1. Avoid tight slots during warm water periods.
2. Require barbless hooks. It
can’t hurt and most likely increases walleye survival, especially in warm water.
3. Distribute catch-and-release guidelines to anglers and emphasize release methods that will lead to reduced hooking mortality.

None of Sternberg's recommendations were ever adopted by DNR.

OK, Gov. Dayton, it’s your call. Look at it this way: You and other state leaders jumped into the Viking Stadium funding crisis when the pulltab predictions flopped.

Well, Mille Lacs is Minnesota's walleye stadium.

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