TIGHTENED SLOTS: Should good fishing be a big problem?

By Joe Fellegy, Outdoor News, June 8, 2001

Two weeks into a fishing season and they've already got Mille Lacs in a turmoil! But that's an improvement over a couple years ago, when anglers were threatened with the "shut down" stick before the season's start. Some DNR operatives who brag that treaty fisheries management has "advanced" Mille Lacs management by 10 years have us wondering. Are uncertainty, controversy, and 2-inch slot limits the wave of the future for healthy fisheries? Will they allow anglers to look at a lake without fear of "penalties?"

The announcement last Thursday that the walleye slot limit on Mille Lacs would be narrowed to just 2 inches of harvest (16 to 18 inches, period) is finally waking people up to the radical and out-of-proportion nature of "treaty fisheries management." Minnesota Fisheries personnel characterize Wisconsin's approach to treaty regs-trimming bag limits (sometimes to one or two fish)-as less desirable than slot limits, a notion some of us bought. But when the slot tightens into a noose around a fishing community, and outlaws citizen harvest of most walleyes at Minnesota's largest walleye factory-for political/legal rather than biological reasons-well, that's pretty serious!

Where, we wonder, is it written in the stars, on birch bark, or even in law, that "treaty fishing" demands turning sport fisheries upside-down? This fisherman has attended umpteen info and input meetings and collected the glossy taxpayer-financed booklets of the taxpayer-financed Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), the tribal umbrella group who now co manages natural resources in the vast Minnesota and Wisconsin 1837 ceded territories. The bar graphs always look the same: tribal harvest amounts to almost nothing, just several percent. Nevertheless, angler limits are chopped by 60, 80, or even 100 percent on scores of lakes in northern Wisconsin. And now Minnesota's Mille Lacs is practically shut down to angler harvest via slot limits, for no biological need or objective in sight.

Well, some say, it's all good in the long run. Conservation, release, "the future," and all that. Sure. Mille Lacs anglers and resorters have led the state on that front. They don't need lectures and platitudes about special regs and less consumption. They've done more than any other lake community to accommodate the "new ethics" and would continue to do so. But the playing out of the treaty fisheries management "process" goes way beyond a reasonable, pure conservation program with a purpose.

(If it's a practical and praiseworthy model, then take its parade of controversy, weekly press coverage about quotas, threats of "shut down," placating tribal co-managers, having to run cover for a horrendous process, etc., on the road! Truck it all over Minnesota! To Walker! To Baudette! To Bena! To Brainerd! To the sport show circuit! And maybe to other states! And surely with plenty of "public input" and "information open houses" at every stop. Should be an easy sell, eh?)

One wonders what the official vision of ultimate Mille Lacs walleye management over the next 10 years really is. A complete harvest ban? Ironically, the DNR Fisheries Division has traditionally pooh-poohed many angler-generated conservation ideas and reg proposals across the state as "biologically insignificant," characterizing walleye sport fisheries as basically "self-regulating." Is Fisheries now, suddenly, regulation-crazed and driven by a no-kill walleye management zeal? They also used to ridicule angler ideas about "saving" and "stockpiling" fish. My! How "science" changes when "process" dictates!

Of course, in the narrow context of harvestable surplus management-capping a fishery with a maximum"safe harvest" level or quota (sometimes used where fisheries face collapse, like decimated cod stocks off the Grand Banks)-it sounds a little reasonable. A year's harvest quota is tied to annual fish population estimates, and to an "exploitation rate ceiling"-24 percent maximum harvest on adult walleyes at Mille Lacs. In practice, it translates into drastic measures. (On Wisconsin treaty fishing waters, "safe" is 35 percent. Apparently, "biology" and definitions of "safe" can vary by 40 percent across state lines.)

There are now three different 2001 slot regulations floating around Mille Lacs-maybe four or five before year's end! First, there's the mistake in Minnesota's 2001 reg book, accidentally including last year's 14- to 18-inch Mille Lacs harvest slot with one over 28 inches; this year's beginning rule (16-20 harvest slot, one over 28); this year's new rule (16- to 18-inch harvest slot, period) effective June 5; a rumored possible change to reinstate the "one over 28" trophy component; and a possible widening of the slot later in the season, if anglers are safely out of "danger" of exceeding their annual quota.

Last Saturday morning, in a recorded interview, Ron Schara and his guest innocently recited the earlier 2001 Mille Lacs regs for the WCCO radio audience. A few minutes later, on KFAN, Rob Drieslein and Rick Bruesewitz, DNR's 1837 treaty biologist, discussed the new and narrowed slot limit. The right slot, anyone?

Since Mille Lacs has historically (not just lately) shown stronger survey findings-larger average size, more walleyes per test net lift, as many or more year-classes represented, remarkable consistency, more natural reproduction, etc.-than found at most other state walleye lakes, we wonder why fisheries managers aren't even more conservative elsewhere, hastening their "ten year" vision along! If a healthy Mille Lacs needs strong medicine-like dramatic in-season intervention with a 2-inch slot midst a complex system of caps and quotas-then think of how other state walleye lakes and streams could benefit from a total closure to harvest plus multiple layers of state and tribal "co-management" bureaucracy!

Interesting points

· We hear plenty from DNR and media about "court-ordered" this and "court-approved" that. Some citizens entertain the mistaken notion that Minnesota's treaty fisheries management plan was determined by the U. S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled in 1999 on whether the harvest provision in the 1837 treaty-allowing the Chippewa to temporarily continue fishing and hunting on ceded land "at the pleasure of the President" (or "until needed for settlement" in other treaties)-still exists. The Supremes did not order any management plan, let alone a single gill net in Mille Lacs. The present management scheme and the division of resources (with Chippewa bands getting 50 percent of the harvestable surpluses of Mille Lacs pike, perch, and other non walleyes, plus 50-50 allocations elsewhere in the ceded territory) was "negotiated" and "stipulated" by state and band personnel and handed to Judge Michael Davis's federal court for approval. The state passed up a

chance to argue state interests in a Phase II or "allocation" trial. Again, the Supreme Court did not "order" this stuff! A lower federal court "approved" it after DNR personnel and state lawyers concocted it.

Moreover, the 1999 Supreme Court opinion never said the 1837 Chippewa fishing and hunting privilege is "forever." One finding was that the privilege wasn't extinguished because President Taylor's 1850 order was flawed. Interestingly, from the state's standpoint one might expect, the court seemed to suggest that a new and carefully crafted executive order by another president might qualify as a proper exercise of presidential "pleasure" to end it all. Are your governor and other state leaders willing to push for a new presidential order nixxing the whole madness? Or willing to vigorously pursue other legal arguments on the state's behalf?

· Minnesota's political leaders, who sometimes pay more homage to tribal quasi-sovereignty than to state sovereignty, have used none of the state's political clout to influence the course of events. And there was no significant "citizen input" on the major tenets of the management plan. Media focused on "culture clash," "racism," "confrontations" (even though there weren't any in Minnesota), and selective "history." The state surrendered its sole management authority over its own resources, and kissed off up to half the harvestable fish and game over millions of acres without making it much of an issue. In state politics and media, important and reasonable jurisdictional and management questions were typically marginalized as the concerns of a few renegade sportsmen and ill-motivated "treaty rights opponents."

· One can grope for silver linings-conservation and release ethics, "future good fishing," etc.-but that sidesteps big issues. Regulation for a "process" rather than for specific biological needs or objectives forces pretense and lies from biologists and managers who try to defend it. It's a disaster when public trust in DNR management and DNR data is squandered, when state agencies hide behind sincere citizen inputters whom they now scapegoat and divide, when a fishing community is surrounded with ongoing uncertainty and controversy, when management of a healthy walleye fishery takes on the rhetoric and rules of "emergency measures" and "mid season intervention," and when a normal good Mille Lacs spring bite becomes a "problem" and brings threats of "penalties!"

· The quotas, threshholds, ceilings, caps, slots, maximums, minimums, allowable and safe this and-thats, allocations, input, limits, surveys, monitoring, overages, underages, widenings, narrowings, restrictions, tightenings, harvest declarations, technical committee meetings, downs, ups, and all the rest might make sense in the context of Minnesota's treaty-related harvestable surplus management, or within some nerd's statistical cocoon. But an average citizen taxpayer/license holder and co-owner of Minnesota public waters might view things differently. He sacrifices and gets punished in return! Anglers released an estimated 1.4 million pounds of Mille Lacs walleye in two seasons plus two weeks-the equivalent of four good season-long Mille Lacs harvests under the old rules, or 10 times the accumulated tribal harvest (which shouldn't even wiggle the needle within DNR's traditional margins of error), or 34 times this spring's tribal harvest, or about 30 times Rainy Lake's target harvest. A 1.4-million-pound release gesture is a pretty impressive performance by anglers, eh? Nothing comparable in all of Minnesota's walleye country!

Yet, little of it counts! Hence, the 2-inch slot. We go through all of this partly to accommodate a spawning-time tribal walleye gill net fishery-the only one of its kind in the United States, tribal or non-tribal-conducted in significant measure by taxpayer-paid band and GLIFWC operatives, and using gill net mesh sizes originally outlawed in that much-touted mid-1990s state/tribal stipulation approved by Judge Davis, without a whimper from the state. While more and more anglers support conservation, release ethics, and active management, many of them find it extreme that they catch 20 adult walleyes and can't have a fish sandwich, or that the fishing community is embroiled in a never-ending mess with double standards and disproportionate costs.

How, some citizens ask, could state officials and judges manage to turn Minnesota's largest sport fishery, where for years people had been happy with fishing and management, into the biggest on-going rhubarb in state resource management history-with the governor, the attorney general, the DNR commissioner, state tourism leaders, legislators, and "groups" saying and doing nothing? Do they really want this stuff? Are they in fact "bought," as many allege? Too lacking in leadership? Or what?

"What can we do?"

Ideally, "we" shouldn't have to do anything! Our governor uses national television as a bully pulpit. We have a congressional delegation, 200 state legislators, plus state officers and commissioners. Does anyone seriously believe that they're muzzled or court-constrained from speaking out or doing something? Or that the great state of Minnesota is forbidden, or without the power, to pursue its bests interests legally and politically? (During the 1990s, Ron Maddox, then the Mille Lacs Band's public relations director and lobbyist, and former St. Paul bar owner and councilman, did more to influence and orchestrate media coverage (against the state) than did state government, which never tried, even when kicked below the belt!)

Even the state's case in the 1837 Mille Lacs litigation, sometimes criticized as half-hearted and lacking, emphasized that treaty co-management would do great "violence" to the state's ability to manage its own resources equally for all citizens. But can you recall a single high state official or legislative leader who publicly (let alone passionately) advocated for the state's own case? Can you name one?

Always remember that when the state does deals, partnerings, negotiations, settlements, and "cooperative" stuff with tribes, secrecy reigns, accountability is largely absent, and state authority is frequently compromised. The main tenets of these "deals" and "agreements" are often hidden behind fluff about "working together" and "protecting" a resource. Always challenge government officials and elected representatives to reveal who crafted the thing and what it's really all about, and to detail all possible legal, economic, and other ramifications for citizens and the state-especially when reservation or trust land with the legal status of "Indian country" is involved. Ask for all the costs to taxpayers. And find out where your government people stand on the issues.

State officials are now doing a resource allocation/management deal with the Chippewa in the 1854 treaty area covering 5 million acres in the Arrowhead, and are also considering a "settlement" committing the equivalent of 2.5 percent of all Minnesota's fishing, hunting, and trapping license revenues to the White Earth Band. (It's been 5 percent for the Leech Lake tribal government for years.) Various local, state, and federal agencies doing sewer deals at Mille Lacs are working with and honoring documents recognizing the old and former 61,000-acre 1855 Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, whose possible status as Indian country raises plenty of legal and jurisdictional questions for state citizens and resource managers-all behind the cloak of "keeping the lake clean."

Meanwhile, the casualties inflicted by treaty fisheries management pile up. DNR's Mille Lacs assessment program, forced to quantify, predict, and pretend things it was never meant to do, is now battered with criticism and skepticism. DNR fisheries and enforcement field personnel are badgered about a hard-to-defend "process" they didn't design. The Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group, assembled by the DNR for advice about which reg options might fly best in the fishing community, is now the fall guy for DNR decisions. Twenty years of rapport- and confidence building between Mille Lacs resorters and DNR fisheries biologists (often cited as a model) are badly trashed. And those individuals and families who live and work in the Mille Lacs economy do so midst increasing hassle and worries about their futures.

Chippewa enrollees, who naturally come under the heading of "the Indians," also get dumped on. Most of them have nothing to do with "tribal fishing," the cause or the practice. And who could blame Indians for supporting "treaty rights?" Their leaders spawned lies about their history (there was no 1837 "rights struggle" in the history of the Mille Lacs Band) and often fabricated "culture" for use as a political and legal tool-in the absence of a free press and open debate on Minnesota Indian reservations.

The richness of the angling sport is on the line, too, as its contemplative and fun nature is forced into conflict, division, anger, distrust, and disillusionment. And then there's the public purse. To accommodate the "tribal fishing" of a few dozen Indians, Minnesotans are paying for their own standard (but expanded) DNR operations plus the activities of DNR's Treaty Fisheries Management Office. And they're helping fund individual tribal DNRs and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), with more going to services and support by multiple agencies, from law enforcement to the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Have you ever seen a dollar tally?

Such is the system foisted upon us. Maybe the 2-inch slot limit will have a big impact-in the form of a wake-up call!

Editor's note: On June 18th, as a result of public pressure, the DNR changed the rule on Mille Lacs Lake to allow anglers to keep one trophy walleye that is thirty inches long or longer. This is in addition to the harvestable slot of sixteen to eighteen inches.