Part one of a series: Frustrated fish advisory council member Steve Johnson of Johnson’s Portside sounds off

It is not difficult to find locals of the Mille Lacs Lake area who are outspoken in their views on the management of the lake. Many spoke loud and clear last summer when the Department of Natural Resources shut down Mille Lacs walleye fishing mid-summer. As a result, Governor Mark Dayton issued a directive to the DNR to find a solution to help the lake and the businesses that rely on the lake for sustenance. Tom Landwehr, the commissioner of the DNR, appointed 17 Minnesotans to the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee with the intention they would give input to the DNR on fisheries management programs and related issues for Mille Lacs Lake.

A press release from the DNR last fall stated, “Members of the committee will contribute to the broader understanding of biological, social and economic aspects of the Mille Lacs fishery and develop recommendations to advise the DNR on potential approaches and regulations to solve identified issues.”

The committee had five meetings thus far. Each meeting had a moderator and a panel of speakers with a specific topic, or two, on the agenda. Some members of the committee are expressing their frustration and a feeling that these meetings are getting them nowhere. One such committee member is Steve Johnson of Johnson’s Portside, who feels the committee has not been allowed to do what they signed up for: contribute to the broader understanding of biological, social and economic aspects of the Mille Lacs fishery and develop recommendations to advise the DNR on potential approaches and regulations to solve identified issues.

Johnson attributes the “all talk and no action” of the meetings to the management approach of the DNR. However, he clarifies that statement by saying it is not entirely the fault of the DNR.

“The gist of it is the ineffective management that the DNR has been practicing needs to stop,” Johnson said. “But they can’t because the protocols that have been developed through Treaty Fisheries Management. Everything goes under the umbrella of the TFM. The DNR does not possess the tools to be effective management under those protocols. But they are pigeon holed. ”

According to Johnson, the DNR has put together highly-paid, well educated biologists, scientists and fishery specialists and experts who are not given the opportunity to biologically manage the lake because they are mandated by the TFM protocols to manage the lake in order to meet the quotas. Johnson gave as an example the targeting of a 2-inch slot limit of the least populated fish in the lake, currently the 18- to 20-inch range.

“That is biologically unsound,” Johnson said. “If you were to biologically manage those fish, you would protect the least populated year classes. Instead, under TFM, because they have to meet their quota, they target fish that don’t exist, or are in low numbers, so they do not meet their quota. It has nothing to do with the health of the lake. It has everything to do with meeting the quota.”

The 2013 year class is the most talked about class and has been dubbed as the saving grace for the recovery of the lake. The class is large. According to Johnson, “They are manipulating the recovery by protecting all of them. They are letting the eating machine go crazy.”

Biologists from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and the DNR put their heads together and compared data to estimate the entire population of fish in the lake. Both the DNR and GLIFWC have admitted that number is purely an estimation based on data collected by creel surveys and spring and fall netting surveys. Both of these tools carry a 20 to 30 percent margin of error, according to Tom Jones, DNR Treaty Coordinator. Yet the annual quotas are a definite number based off an estimated number that carries a fairly large margin of error.

According to Johnson there are two issues that affect whether or not the quota is met or exceeded, such as last year, and those are fishing pressure and mortality rate.

Fishing pressure

Johnson said he asked a direct question at the second meeting of the committee, “With everything that you claim is wrong with the lake – low zooplankton, spiny water fleas, zebra muscles, clearer water, warmer water – out of all of those things, what can you change? Of everything that has to do with the lake, what can you change besides pressure?

No one could answer his question he said. “Then I asked, then why are we here?”

Fishing pressure is the number of people who are fishing 

the lake. According to Johnson, last summer when the lake experienced what the DNR has referred to as “the perfect storm” over the July 4th holiday weekend the fishing pressure increased exponentially. And the bite was hot. Based on creel surveys the DNR estimated anglers would be over the quota within weeks. The DNR issued press releases stating the numbers of walleyes were in a 30-year low and the Twin Cities media jumped on those sound bites, according to Johnson.

“The whole lake was shut down because of this,” Johnson said. “Last year the words ‘Mille Lacs Lake’ and ‘crisis’ were always strung together. They recited over and over again the walleye numbers were in a 30-year low. The reality is this lake is loaded with fish. I am tired of media outlets that come up here and look for sound bites that portray the lake in the negative. They look for the one tiny little thing and blow it up instead of getting the whole picture.”

Mortality rate

Mortality rate is the number of fish that are not actually harvested by anglers, but die as a result of catch and release or of other and natural causes. These fish in the mortality category are also counted against the quota. “What affects that quota more than anything is the mortality rate,” Johnson said.

The DNR conducted a study of the mortality rate of Mille Lacs nearly decades ago. “I have been on the advisory council since it started 17 years ago,” Johnson said. “They were not that adamant about it in the beginning. But now, a lot of us question their mortality study. We live and die underneath that. We don’t have a choice. Nor does the DNR.”

The issue of the mortality rate, along with walleye stocking, is on the agenda for the next meeting of the advisory council. That meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 16 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the Garrison City Hall. The community is welcome to attend this meeting for observation only.

Finding a solution

“You can’t change nature,” Johnson said. “This lake is loaded with fish. My best management solution? Leave her alone. She has done a good job of managing herself for centuries. What more can we ask of her than she is already doing? She has already stepped up. She is doing what we want her to do. The lake is loaded with fish and there is plenty of forage.”

Johnson said on a side note the forage in the lake is one of the most important and least studied areas of the lake.

According to Johnson leaving the management of the lake to the lake itself is impossible under the protocols of TFM. What the TFM protocols are doing is manipulating the recovery of the lake. “TFM management caused a direct decimation of male fish in the lake. Male fish are smaller. Those males were targeted not only by the netting, but also by the anglers.”

According to Johnson, the only way to change the management of the lake and have an impact is to change the protocols. “We go back to TFM and redesign the program. That means taking those protocols, dissecting those protocols and possibly re-negotiating [the protocols]. It is not a simple process. In order for something to change, that is where it has to start.”

Johnson was adamant that he means he is not asking to re-negotiate the treaty. He is asking them to reexamine the protocol.

About Steve Johnson

Johnson is a business owner of Johnson’s Portside in Mille Lacs Lake area for 30 years. He has an AA in Natural Resource Technology, is Chairman of East Side Township, treasurer of Mille Lacs Area Tourism and on the Mille Lacs County Planning Commission.

Editor’s note

All Messenger attempts to reach the DNR for comment were unsuccessful. The Messenger is giving a voice to the Mille Lacs Lake community regarding the current state of the lake. The public is encouraged to contact the Messenger at vlamoore@millelacsmessenger.com.

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