The Band’s Motive: Surf or Turf?

What are the Mille Lacs Band’s real motives? That’s the question many anglers and resorters are now asking in light of the Band’s recent decision to demand mediation to prevent future overharvest of Mille Lacs walleyes by State anglers. The DNR concedes that this year’s “10X bite” has pushed the walleye harvest about 70,000 pounds over the quota and has offered several concessions to reduce harvest for the remainder of the year. But the Mille Lacs Band has taken a hard-line stance, refusing to accept the concessions and choosing to invoke their mediation rights as provided in the treaty protocols. If the differences cannot be resolved by mediation, the parties would most likely go back to court. The Band’s aggressive action brings up many questions: Will they demand closure of the open-water walleye season for the remainder of the year, closure of the coming ice-fishing season or further restrictions on next year’s harvest? And what would these moves mean for the Mille Lacs Lake economy?

Many Mille Lacs observers believe that the Band’s actions have little to do with protecting the fish population , but are intended to keep anglers away, thereby harming the lake’s fishing economy and reducing property values; then the Band can buy up property at bargain-basement prices. But before you decide whether the Band is more interested in surf or turf, consider the following:

• This year’s total walleye harvest (tribal catch included) now stands at about 420,000 pounds, well below the average pre-treaty harvest level of 510,000 to 592,000 pounds, depending on method of calculation.

• Because it is difficult to sample large walleyes, the DNR believes it has been underestimating that component of the walleye population. Yet the Mille Lacs Band says that the spawning stock biomass is “at the low end of its known historic range.” With the tremendous numbers of spawning-size walleyes caught and released by anglers this year, however, it would appear that the Band’s concerns are not genuine.

• Since treaty management began in 1997, the annual walleye harvest (State and Band combined) has averaged 372,000 pounds, more than 200,000 pounds below the DNR’s “retro” safe harvest level of 586,000 pounds. The retro SHL is calculated by the DNR after the pre-season SHL has been set and more data has been collected, so it more accurate. From 1997 to 2001, the total walleye harvest was more than 1 million pounds less than the retro SHL, so a 70,000-pound overage in 2002 should not be a concern. This explains why the DNR, in response to one of the Mille Lacs Band’s letters stated: “We feel that the fishery has not, however, been harmed.”

•Treaty protocols limit the “exploitation rate” (percentage of the lake’s catchable-size walleyes harvested each year) to 24 percent. The post-treaty exploitation rate, which is calculated using the more accurate retro numbers, has never exceeded 24 percent and has averaged only 15 percent.

•The Mille Lacs Band’s most recent letter contends that the 2002 overage by State anglers “causes real injury to the Bands.” Since the State has exceeded their share, they say, their members may be reluctant to participate in a fall and winter fishery “for fear of harming the resource.” In previous years, however, the Band’s fall and winter harvest has been negligible, so it appears that their injury claim amounts to nothing but grandstanding.

•By protesting the State’s overage so strongly, the Mille Lacs Band is refusing to recognize the predator-prey imbalance that caused the severe baitfish shortage during the 2001 and 2002 seasons and resulted in the 10X bite that nobody could have predicted. As is turns out, the overage may have been a godsend in helping to get the lake back into balance so the baitfish crop can recover and prevent another 10X bite next year.

•Based on 5 years of post-treaty experience, the DNR admits that it cannot accurately set the safe harvest level prior to the season. Nor can it accurately predict what anglers are likely to catch under a given set of regulations. They realize the current management system is flawed and are suggesting a new “common-sense” management approach with a longer time frame (up to 5 years) that can accommodate ups and downs in the fishery that cannot be predicted but are sure to occur. While this type of management plan is more sensible and will still protect the fishery, the Mille Lacs Band is strongly objecting to the concept. In its latest letter, the Band refers to the DNR’s suggestion as a “unilateral evisceration of the State’s obligation to manage its fishery so that it remains within the State’s share of the harvestable surplus.”

Given the fact the DNR has assured the Mille Lacs Band that the fishery has not been harmed, why would the Band protest so vehemently over a relatively small overage that has not even put the harvest above the long-term average?

The answer becomes abundantly clear in a “State of the Band” speech given by Art Gahbow, former Chief of the Mille Lacs Band, in 1989. The overriding theme of his address was, “We will take it back.” Using the strongest of language, Gahbow criticized the United States government and the State of Minnesota for the “grave injustice” they have done to the Band by “allowing our land to be stolen” and “participating in the theft of our land.” In all, Gahbow used the “We will take it back” phrase (or a variation of it) 12 times in his address. He concluded with the admonition, “We will not back down. We are on the attack. There is no retreat. There is no surrender.”

If there were any questions about the Band’s motives following Gahbow’s speech, the Band’s subsequent actions provide the answers. As most long-time Mille Lacs anglers know, many of the resorts they once frequented no longer exist. The Band has already purchased 10 resorts along the west side of the lake, including Eddy’s, one of the lake’s largest fishing operations. In addition, they have purchased more than 150 other parcels of private land near the lake.

urf or turfYes, the Band is gradually taking it back and their efforts to disrupt the fishing economy will clearly speed up the process.