Meeting with the governor about Mille Lacs

Editor's note: The Mille Lacs Lake Advisory Association (MLLAA) was formed in the early 1980's to improve the quality of the fishery at Mille Lacs Lake. It was at the forefront of the Catch & Release movement, with its promotion of the "one walleye over twenty inch" rule at Mille Lacs Lake, when the concept of catch and release was relatively unheard-of by anglers.

(Commentary by Eddy Lyback, Pres., Mille Lacs Lake Advisory Association)

On Nov. 20, I and several others from Mille Lacs enjoyed the opportunity to meet with Gov. Jesse Ventura, DNR Commissioner Al Garber, DNR Assistant Commissioner Brad Moore, state Fisheries chief Ron Payer, and Kim Bonde, Mr. Garber’s aide.

We told the Governor and DNR leaders that we have always supported release and conservation. But the negative impacts of treaty fisheries management are constantly creating turmoil. Turmoil and tourism don’t mix!

This past summer, a little over two weeks into the fishing season, the 16-to 20-inch walleye harvest slot (with one over 28 inches) had to be tightened to 16- to 18 inches, with no trophy. The DNR claimed that because of good weather, good fishing, and good numbers of fishermen, they had to further restrict the harvest. That was the first time Minnesota fishermen heard that these good things, with a healthy fish population, could be a problem.

The 16-20 slot had already resulted in the estimated release of 400,000 pounds of walleye through the end of May. That number equals an average total season harvest for Mille Lacs. But that wasn’t enough. With the tighter 16-18 slot (and changing trophy lengths), DNR estimated that walleye anglers had released over a million pounds by the end of summer.

The new 14- to 18-inch harvest slot (with one over 28 inches) that went into effect Dec. 1 is the sixth regulation this year. We greatly appreciate DNR’s expanding the slot for this winter - it will likely boost the local economy - but we’ve had too many reg changes, and we still need major reform and more consistency. (Generally, according to DNR, about 10 to 15 percent of a season’s Mille Lacs harvest comes in winter.)

The tighter slot imposed last June sent shock waves through Mille Lacs-related businesses and fishermen. Yes, anglers could enjoy some of the greatest fishing the lake could produce, with the chance of keeping a fish or two for the table. But with the way treaty fisheries management was set up - with extreme regulation and constant news about quotas, harvest, release, and special meetings - we experienced constant controversy and turmoil. Some fishermen simply chose to avoid it all by staying away from Mille Lacs.

News about changing restrictions and the quota often put the good health of the fishery and the excellent fishing on the back burner. Businesses from Mille Lacs to the Twin Cities felt the impact. Treaty fisheries management undermined trust between the DNR and Mille Lacs anglers and resorters, something many of us helped to build over the years.

In mid-June, the board of directors of the Mille Lacs Lake Advisory Association (MLLAA) decided if the DNR couldn’t see the problems, maybe Governor Ventura could press for change. That’s why we launched the “Common Sense for Mille Lacs” petition to the Governor.

Even before we met with the Governor on Nov. 20, news about the MLLAA petition, calls for change from respected outdoor writers, postcards to the Governor sponsored by PERM, and a forceful constructive concern from members of DNR’s Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group on July 26, had apparently helped to convince DNR Fisheries managers that something had to change.

In mid September, Commissioner Garber attended a second meeting of the Input Group. He told those present that the DNR is responsible for managing fisheries and putting the resource first, but from now on must also represent and protect the interests of non-band anglers. Hopefully we will see new DNR initiatives for more stable management and less controversy at Mille Lacs. We’ve been encouraged that state personnel will more strongly represent the interests of their own citizens in negotiations and decision-making with the Chippewa Indian bands.

After an earlier cancellation, our Nov. 20 meeting came on short notice. Some of our original group couldn’t make it, but Mark Crowl, Greg Fisher, Craig Hagman, Bill Lundeen, Terry McQuoid, and I met with the Governor. We had worried that he might be detached, or too distracted by other issues and events to regard Mille Lacs as the high priority it is. But he seemed informed and appeared to understand the social and economic importance of Mille Lacs. Thanks, Governor Ventura!

I presented the “Common Sense for Mille Lacs” petition signed by 20,000 concerned citizens. The basic message: We want management with more stability and without Mille Lacs always linked to controversy and problems. The court-approved protocols do allow for change in the treaty management system. We think change is necessary to avoid continuing turmoil at Mille Lacs. We must keep that message in front of state officials and legislators!

I want to thank everyone who signed the petition and all those individuals and businesses who helped distribute, collect, and mail it. Thank you all! You’ve shown support for good conservation balanced with common sense. Some analysts say that every signature on a petition could represent as many as 10 more people who would have signed it. That would be 200,000 citizens represented by just our small effort. A university of Minnesota student analyzed a random packet of 2,000 signatures. Naturally, any sample would vary according to where the sheets originated, but just this one stack contained signatures from over 160 Minnesota towns (with metro and outstate well represented) and 18 states!

That should tell government officials and political candidates that lots of people all over the state and beyond care about what happens at Mille Lacs. Those petition signers, including many who vote in Minnesota elections, will be watching closely as the state proceeds in the coming months!

Again, thanks for supporting common sense for Mille Lacs. I think it’s making a difference!