PERM Changes Mille Lacs Fishing Management

What a difference a year makes! In early 2002, using the biological research of Dick Sternberg, PERM began asking tough questions about the DNR’s management of Lake Mille Lacs. Sternberg’s research showed that there was a buildup of large fish in Mille Lacs, the baitfish or forage base was at historical lows, and the DNR’s treaty management had been under-harvesting the resource. PERM warned that the tight harvest slot for walleyes, coupled with the lack of forage base, would mean few fish that anglers could keep and hundreds of thousands of pounds of catch and release mortality. That is exactly what occurred.
But there is also a success story to report. Led by the efforts of Dick Sternberg, who was funded by PERM, the legislators held hearings and the DNR, faced with the mounting public criticism, slowly began to take a fresh look at the issues and ideas raised by PERM’s biological research. The result is a new management plan for Mille Lacs that implements many of the changes advocated by the Sternberg reports:

Higher Safe Harvest Level.

Sternberg showed, from the DNR’s own data, that the lake on average produced 580,000 pounds of walleyes annually, before treaty management. Although the agreement with the Bands allowed a 24% of adult walleye harvest rate, the study showed that the DNR’s management had held those harvest rates to 15%. Last spring, the DNR claimed that Sternberg’s recommendation of 550,000 pounds annually was not supported by the biological data. But for 2003, the DNR has now accepted 550,000 pounds as the safe harvest level!

Wider Harvest Slot.

By increasing the safe harvest poundage that can be taken from the lake, the DNR made it possible to eliminate the 2-inch harvest slot. Beginning in May or June, there will be a 17 to 28-inch protected slot, a step in the right direction.

Avoid Tight Slots in Summer.

Sternberg suggested that, to minimize hooking mortality, any tight harvest slots be implemented only during the early spring harvest, to avoid higher catch and release mortality that occurs in warm water periods. As a result, when the 2-inch slot ends, the 17 to 28-inch protected slot will take its place. Had this regulation been in effect for 2002, the hooking mortality would have been cut in half.

Improved Gill-Net Survey.

Sternberg pointed out that the DNR’s netting had insufficient mesh sizes and had too few nets that didn’t sample the whole lake. The DNR has added twelve “offshore nets” and 16 large mesh nets to their annual sampling program.

Better Estimate of Hooking Loss.

Sternberg’s report noted the inability to accurately measure hooking mortality. Next season, the DNR will conduct a hooking mortality study to get a better measure of the problem.

Regulation Stability.

Sternberg criticized frequent changes in regulations, and advocated a long-term management plan. The DNR is moving in that direction.

Use of Tribal “Underages.”

PERM argued that the fish not taken by the Indian Bands should offset any over-harvest by the State. The DNR proposed such an offset to the Bands as part of the five-year plan, and the Bands agreed.

Work that remains to be done

Biological Imbalances.

The super tight slot limits imposed in recent years have created biological imbalances that need to be addressed.

Decline in Adult Baitfish.

Adult perch are at a 14-year low and tullibees are at an all-time low, down 97% from the long-term average. The large hatch of yellow perch in 2002 was a surprise in view of the low population of adults, but how long will these small perch survive if they are the only viable forage? Can good perch hatches continue with the population of adults at such low levels?

Size and Balance in Walleye Population.

With the new 17 to 28-inch protected slot, the walleye harvest will target walleyes in the 11 to 17-inch size class. Those fish are already 48% below normal levels. Walleyes in the 20 to 24-inch class, however, are 74% above normal levels and 24+ inchers are 114% above normal levels. Harvesting some of these larger fish to allow the adult baitfish to survive should be explored. The current management creates the issue of what happens as the big fish die off of old age over the coming years, while the smaller sizes needed to replace them continue to be the sole angling target.

Poor Condition of Large Walleyes.

The general feeling among most experienced Mille Lacs anglers is that many of the lake’s largest walleyes died as a result of the severe food shortage in 2002. Many of the big walleyes brought into early season tournaments were as much as 50% underweight and showing obvious signs of starvation. As the season progressed, the condition of smaller fish improved, probably because of the good perch hatch, but the biggest fish remained in bad shape and very few 28+ inchers were taken in late season tournaments. The 2002 gill-netting results confirm that the average weight of 9-year old walleyes declined even further from 2001, and is now at a 12-year low.

The Future.

PERM is dedicated to working with the DNR, concerned legislators, and others to provide the biological expertise and input to assure that the management of the Lake Mille Lacs fishery is sound from a biological standpoint so that the lake can provide the best fishing experience possible for all who enjoy her waters.

Your support of PERM does matter and has changed how Lake Mille Lacs is managed.

Editor’s note: In the January 2003 issue of the PERM Newsletter, we presented an overview of the newly announced Mille Lacs Lake management plan. We said we would publish a more detailed assessment of the plan in coming weeks. The new report, prepared by Mr. Sternberg, has been completed and sent to top officials at the DNR as well as members of the Legislature and Governor’s Office. If you would like to read the 16-page report “The New Mille Lacs Plan: A Closer Look” by Dick Sternberg, you can access it for free on our web site at www.perm.org. Just click on current news.

Or if you would like us to mail you a copy, please send $3.00 to:
PERM (New Plan)
657 Main St. #210
Elk River MN 55330