The Minnesota DNR and Ojibwe bands have agreed on a safe harvest level for Mille Lacs Lake that will cut in half the total walleye kill for both anglers and netters.
After meetings in Isle last week, biologists from the DNR, the Mille Lacs and Fond Du Lac bands, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) set the allowable harvest at 250,000 pounds — 178,750 pounds for anglers and 71,250 for eight Ojibwe bands.
Last year’s safe harvest was 500,000 pounds — 357,500 pounds for state anglers and 142,500 for the bands.
Sue Erickson, the director of public information for GLIFWC, said on Monday that the decision was based on DNR gillnet survey data showing a decline in walleye numbers — specifically smaller male walleyes that are targeted by both anglers and netters.
Erickson would not say whether the bands were considering changes in net mesh size to target different sized fish, but she did say a variety of possibilities are being discussed.
Now that the harvest numbers have been set, the DNR and bands will set their respective regulations to stay within that harvest cap.
She said the bands and state will conduct a joint assessement on northern pike and walleye numbers to determine population abundance and also to see if current methods of assessing population have been effective.
She also noted that biologists are considering potential effects of climate change, zebra mussels and other factors.
The new allocation marks the first decline in the tribes’ total since 1837 Treaty management began in the late 1990s.
“The tribes are concerned about having a healthy and sustainable fishery in Mille Lacs,” Erickson said, “and everyone’s got to do their part.”
Over the last 10 years, the general rules — including how to deal with harvests that exceed the allocation — have been outlined in five-year plans agreed to by the bands and the state. The last plan expired last year, and the two parties said at the time that they would develop a new plan for the next five years. Erickson had nothing to report on a new five-year plan.
Large lake specialist Tom Jones said the two parties are concentrating on this year and have not discussed a new five-year plan. When asked how overages will be dealt with, Jones said there will be no overages. “If we start getting close we have to change the regulation,” he said.
Jones echoed some of the points made by Erickson:
• The DNR’s “big concern is long-term health of the walleye fishery.”
• The bands voluntarily dropped their allocation from 140,000 to 71,000 pounds. “They didn’t have to do that,” Jones said. “We’re appreciative of that.”
• The bands and the state will participate in a tagging study to come up with an independent population estimate to determine how trustworthy the gillnet surveys are. “That would help us understand if the population really has gone down or if there’s been some trend in gillnet catchability,” Jones said.
The gillnet surveys showed a record-low number of walleyes in the lake last fall — a spawning stock biomass of 1.23 to 1.22 million pounds, compared to 2.5 million in the mid 1990s.
Even if last fall’s numbers were off, there still appears to be a long-term downward trend, Jones said. Four of the five lowest results from 30 years of data have occurred in the last six years.
The other issue is the small number of young male walleyes. He said three-year-old fish are evenly divided between male and female. Among four-year-olds, there are a few more females, and by the time they are five, Jones said, there are “a lot more” females.
The fact that anglers and netters have been targeting young male fish appears to play a role in that imbalance, Jones said.
As a result, both the bands and the DNR will look at regulation changes that will improve the situation. What those might be, he wasn’t prepared to say.
Good bite, bad news?
It’s not just the numbers that cast a pall over the prospects for the upcoming open water season. The winter bite has been pretty good, Jones said, which is often an indication of how the fishing will be in the summer.
If the bite is good, anglers may find that much of the “harvest” is actually hooking mortality.
If anglers catch and release a lot of fish, and 5 to 10 percent are estimated to die by hooking mortality, it could turn out that anglers keep far fewer than the allotted 178,000 pounds.
Jones said they are hoping to minimize that possibility.
The reasons for the good bite are unclear. It appears that tullibee numbers are down, but the data give mixed signals on the abundance of perch — growing walleyes’ favorite food.
Jones also said the harvest allocation for northerns will be raised from 25,000 to 50,000 in hopes of reducing their predation on young walleyes. Changes to smallmouth regulations are also being considered.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger.