By Joe Fellegy – Outdoor News, Feb. 6, 2013

Fish and fishing people comprise a fishery. Without people there is no fishery. Given the ongoing turmoil at Mille Lacs — traditionally our “premier walleye lake” but now, increasingly, the controversy capitol of Minnesota fishing — state leadership better rescue both fish and people from the quagmire. They owe us. After all, back in the 1990s miscreants in state government helped dig the Mille Lacs hole. And seemingly indifferent state personnel have maintained it. Last year the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group passed a resolution asking DNR officials to use state legal and political clout to end the mess. Have they?

State leaders must step up and do what’s necessary and right. Justifiably impatient stakeholders have their own takes, some dumb, some smart; some informed, others off base. But don’t blame them for demanding an end to one of the biggest and costliest debacles in Minnesota resource-management history. Can state officials even tell you where state-versus-tribal authority begins and ends — at Mille Lacs and across numerous counties and millions of acres of treaty ceded territories? From fish to aquatic invasive species, who controls what, whom, where, and when within Minnesota’s boundaries?

Millions of Minnesotans own Lake Mille Lacs and what’s in it. They pay state resource managers, lawmakers, and policymakers. They fund the offices of Governor and Attorney General. (They also pay federal taxes, which fund tribal governments and tribal resource-management agencies, like the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), which has received hundreds of millions over the years.) Yet, unsympathetic leaders — plus too many would-be conservationists, academics, and journalists — turn blind eyes and even run cover for the Mille Lacs monster. They callously overlook the human element, the thousands of people trapped in gloom, and maybe doom, brought on by walleye gill- net harvests and by “treaty fisheries management,” which isn’t treaty- created.

Last week’s dramatic headline stories featured a fish population in crisis, and a fishing and business community entangled in hassle and uncertainty. Ominous news flowed everywhere, with negative power-words galore. Allowable angler harvests are slashed, cut in half, with unprecedented strict regulation to follow. Anglers, guides, resorters, and the extended Mille Lacs family deserve better.

My chats with concerned folks revealed widespread strong emotions, from anger to sadness and despair. Some compared the light-hearted fish-talk and smiling faces of bygone days to the somber moods and heavy dark clouds over today’s Mille Lacs fishing scene. One guy remarked, “We shouldn’t have to live out our Mille Lacs experience in this terrible mess.”

A moral issue?

Let’s get philosophical. Consider the high costs, at many levels, of how 1837 “treaty rights” and treaty fisheries management at Mille Lacs play out and impact people. Isn’t this a moral issue? There’s the old Principle of the Double Effect. When the bad far outweighs any good, and when those in charge fail to minimize the harm, there’s a problem!

Ponder the horrible social climate caused by unequal rights, culturally offensive spawning-time gillnetting, and endless controversy and uncertainty; damage to the mood of a community, with stress, distraction, and worry aplenty; rips in the social fabric via us-versus-them separatist policies; enormous dollar costs for respective state and tribal management, and mismanagement; declining trust in resource managers and state officials; compromised state resource-management authority; grossly unfair fish allocations; and terrible publicity for Mille Lacs and its business community. Incidentally, neither these costs nor official inaction are “ordered” or “affirmed” by the U. S. Supreme Court!

Should we add a screwed-up fish population and miles of gill nets strung over zebra mussel-infested terrain? And there’s so much more, like misplays of the race card to stifle needed issues discussion; and GLIFWC’s spending untold millions, and using Indian people as fronts, to expand and strengthen the Indian Industry’s legal and political power while tribal communities are plagued by crime and social dysfunction.

The smallmouth thing

The huge Mille Lacs smallmouth explosion raises questions about effects on the ecosystem, including walleyes and other fish. Know that most anglers and guides who worked Mille Lacs in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s never saw a Mille Lacs smallmouth. Bass-chasers shouldn’t berate anglers, or fisheries managers, for voicing concern and wanting more info.

In the early 1980s, smallmouth attracted some bass-chasers but incidental smallies were still a novelty for veteran Mille Lacs anglers. Back then, some guides viewed smallmouth as a promising new bonus, an alternative to walleyes that could attract new anglers. Absent much public input, bass activists and a few well-intentioned locals won the 0- to 21-inch protected slot. Given today’s smallmouth explosion, perceived take-over of former walleye haunts, and whatever biological impacts, questions, and regs-moderation are in order.

This smallmouth issue, though very legit, shouldn’t distract from key priorities: to free Mille Lacs from the only massive gill-net fishery in the United States that purposely targets concentrated and vulnerable spawning walleyes (male-dominated walleye subgroups); and to free a fishing community and fisheries managers from the extremist demands and unacceptable costs of treaty fisheries management.