Outdoor News, Vol. 51, No. 08 — Page 12
By Joe Fellegy February 23, 2018

Mille Lacs is setting records. No, not those released “state-record muskies.” Rather, we’re seeing the biggest ongoing PR disaster in the histories of Minnesota fishing, fisheries management, fishing-related economics, and our sportfishing culture. While citizen-stakeholders get labeled “anti-science” if they question the extremist workings of state-tribal co-management–yes, we do hear some dumb stuff from angler-biologists–it’s management itself that defies fisheries science and triggers distrust toward the DNR’s Section of Fisheries.

Traditionally, through decades of fisheries-science literature, and at gatherings of fisheries professionals around the world, Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs has rightfully been portrayed as the ultimate classic natural walleye lake.

Now, thanks to co-management’s political (not science-based) ultra-low quotas, little or no walleye-keeping for anglers, in-season shutdowns, live-bait bans, hooking-mortality penalties, quota-overage punishments, etc., millions of folks mistakenly believe Mille Lacs is suffering severe walleye woes–that the fish are crashing, collapsing, disappearing, dropping, dwindling, and in demise.

This untruthful vocabulary victimizes the Mille Lacs sportfishing community.

Outside experts?

Last June 9, the DNR announced “an external review of Mille Lacs Lake walleye management and harvest strategy.”

Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief, said the review would evaluate current management objectives and alternative management approaches, analyze possible changes in management strategy, and evaluate current assessment methods like fall gill-net surveys, population estimates, and creel surveys. Dr. Chris Vandergoot, of the U.S. Geological Survey and with Lake Erie connections, would lead the panel.

Early media reports emphasized Vandergoot’s experience with “multi-jurisdictional fisheries.” In a June 6 Star Tribune article, DNR regional fisheries manager Brad Parsons said the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee could ask the experts anything about the DNR’s “Mille Lacs policy or management.”

Naturally, Mille Lacs watchers expected a review of the DNR’s co-management with eight Chippewa bands, six of them from Wisconsin. How would Vandergoot’s panel rate the unnecessarily low walleye quotas that trigger radical management actions, like all-release and in-season angling shutdowns?

Imagine the shock and dismay at the Feb. 5 MLFAC meeting when Dr. Vandergoot said he could address no questions about policy. He later told me his panel decided to avoid policy matters, and that they lack authority to tell state managers “how to run their fisheries.”

And even after attending the Feb. 6 state-tribal Fisheries Technical Committee meeting, seeing in person the haggling that decides Mille Lacs quotas and regs, he had no “personal opinions” to share. Hmm.

A Feb. 6 Star Tribune piece wrongly stated that “walleye management techniques on Mille Lacs have been affirmed” by the four outside experts. Hey, they never touched the flawed policy and management practices. So toss those misleading articles saying the external reviewers found no problems in Mille Lacs management. And unlike most scientific peer reviews, there will be no written report or summary. The outside experts opined on the DNR’s Mille Lacs fisheries-assessment work, but avoided the real biggy: how assessment data is used and misused.

Mille Lacs assessments

Like the DNR’s Fisheries chief Pereira, Dr. Vandergoot, the outside experts’ leader, is well schooled and deep into fisheries science. He gave overall high marks to the department’s fall fish-population gill-net surveys, angler creel surveys, electrofishing, tagging, and hooking-mortality estimates. I agree. The DNR has a long tradition of stellar Mille Lacs assessments and data collection.

In the early 1980s, some of us citizen-activists pushed for annual Mille Lacs fisheries assessments. That ultimately led to the DNR’s Large Lake Sampling Program, which includes annual surveys on Minnesota’s 11 largest lakes.

Sure, given clearer water and other possible influences on walleye numbers in the DNR’s 32 in-shore nets (typically shallower than 15 feet), Fisheries crews could place a few new nets in 20 to 25 feet, short distances beyond some in-shore nets, to observe whatever differences and to satisfy local curiosities.

Normally, the annual fish-population assessments show managers year-class strength, age and size trends, and overall population trends. Any 10-year period normally brings wide fluctuations in year-class strengths, forage abundance, and much more, depending on Mother Nature’s whims. In any assessment-netting season, even with the same fish population, the net catches might vary significantly, depending on weather and water conditions. Outside the horrible Mille Lacs co-management system, that’s a given and no big deal.

Even with new quandaries and questions about invasive species, water clarity, the food chain, and whatever, fisheries managers would typically sit back and see where things level off after a decade. But under the state-tribal co-management’s political quota system, normal fisheries science and trend-watching get scrapped in favor of radical reactions.

Mille Lacs creel surveys began in 1958. They provide info about fish species, numbers, and sizes anglers catch, keep, and release. Like other assessment tools, the random creel surveys cannot yield precise to-the-pound management data. But under the corrosive state-tribal co-management system, they can shut down sport angling on a healthy-enough fishery.

Hooking-mortality scam

At MLFAC meetings, outside experts Dr. James Bence and Dr. Vandergoot were asked if they could name another walleye-fishing community in the United States that must worry about in-season shutdowns based on hooking-mortality guesstimates. Both said no! Yet, Mille Lacs resorters, guides, business folks, and the angling public face such nonsense in the name of “conservative” management.

Sure, some released fish die.

But big majorities live, and that’s the focus everywhere else.

Media mess

The nutcake management happenings and DNR messaging about Minnesota’s largest sport fishery push an endless news flow–from the Mille Lacs Messenger and Brainerd Dispatch to Outdoor News, the Star Tribune, and newspapers across Minnesota and beyond; from Minnesota Public Radio’s 40-plus stations to numerous TV channels and many hours of outdoor talk radio.

Add angling websites, social media, and opinion aplenty. Translate that huge negative Mille Lacs media punch into advertising dollars, and the cost would be many millions a year.


Is there a principle in politics, journalism, or fisheries science that exempts tribal governments and tribal resource-management agencies from media scrutiny and accountability to the tax-paying and license-buying public? Regarding Mille Lacs, think eight tribal DNRs and their Wisconsin-based umbrella group, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission–key players in policy and management. Who are they accountable to?

Millions in taxpayer funding?

Where does state management authority begin and end? Are policy critics within the DNR and Minnesota’s executive branch forbidden from publicly questioning the standard gospels and workings of Mille Lacs co-management?

Talk about unethical public policy, where the negative impacts far outweigh any positives. How long will Minnesota government’s executive branch fail to protect state and citizen interests?

Well, continuing bad policy, plus angler-biologists and others parading their homespun ideas about “doing something” (smart, stupid, or in between). What a clutter on many fronts!

Interestingly, last fall’s in-shore and off-shore gill-net assessments showed a Mille Lacs walleye population within pretty normal bounds.

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