DNR seeks input on its fishing management plan

The Minnesota DNR held a community conversation at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park on Thursday, July 16 in efforts to gain public input to create their fisheries management plan on Mille Lacs Lake. This event was one of three meetings held; one meeting was in Brainerd on Thursday, July 11, and another meeting was held in St. Paul on Thursday, July 18.

DNR Mille Lacs Fisheries Supervisor Tom Heinrich began the meeting welcoming the crowd of approximately 20 people gathered, three times the number gathered in Brainerd, to hear what he had to say.

Heinrich acknowledged that the DNR has “worked in a bit of a vacuum” and has done what “we think people want.” He added, “By engaging the public, we’ll get input and listen to you to set up goals so the users of the resources will have more satisfaction.”

The audience was walked through a DNR walleye population timeline, along with a summarized history of tribal fishing treaty rights in relation to the Minnesota DNR fisheries management. A Q & A session was opened up with the formation of break-out groups designed to get more detailed thoughts from those gathered. Heinrich said a draft plan will be available for public viewing late fall or early winter on the DNR website.

What does the

DNR have to say?

Heinrich led out the discussion by saying the plan wasn’t just for walleye but recognized walleye are the “big player on the lake and probably always will be.” He said the DNR can’t do whatever they want on the lake for three reasons: Biological, legal and social.

“The lake isn’t the same lake it was in the 80s and 90s. In the mid 1990s, we started seeing clear water, and the most likely causes are that we improved sewage treatment and some agricultural and forestry practices. Improved land usage and sewage meant less nutrients (nutrients are needed for the growth of algae that form the base of a complex food web supporting the aquatic ecosystem) into the lake,” he said.

The next thing they saw, he said, were zebra mussels. “They are filtering the little beasts and plants that form the base of the food web walleye feed on, and this caused a decline in the walleye population,” said Heinrich. He noted the invasion of the spiny water fleas to the lake in late 2009 which they believe reduced the abundance of zooplankton therefore reducing the prey species available for young walleye and perch. He added, however, that it is tough to blame any one thing on the walleye population decline since so many changes happened in a short period of time.

Heinrich noted that with the United States Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling on the hunting and fishing rights based on the 1837 Treaty for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Fond du Lac Band, along with six Bands from Wisconsin, affect how many pounds of walleye can be taken from the lake each year between the state and the Band anglers.

“The way we currently manage the harvest is through the consensus agreement which is an agreement produced so we won’t have to go back to court,” said Heinrich. “The state is not allowed to regulate harvest, methods, gear or time or place ... unless there’s a conservation or safety issue.” According to the agreement, the state must take restrictive actions prior to the tribes. “Going back to the Supreme Court is not part of the discussion and not going to be part of this management plan.”

He added the consensus agreement goes to the spring of 2020, and of the 150,000 pound safe walleye harvest limit for 2019, up to 62,200 pounds can go to the Band and up to 87,800 pounds can be taken by the state.

The DNR website says that safe harvest determination has evolved over time and that originally they felt harvesting 24 percent of the walleye population greater than 14-inches was safe. However, they found that policy to be too liberal due to overharvest in some years.

He said the DNR observed the walleye population drop in 2012 during the peak of the zebra mussel population, noting that in the past three years, the zebra mussel population has decreased significantly.

Social issues are also at play, Heinrich said. He said the DNR meets with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee (MLFAC) four times per year to check the heartbeat of the community. Heinrich explained that anglers have differing views on how to manage the lake’s fisheries depending on their interest in fishing whether it be harvesting a fish or sport fishing. Commercial, recreational and homeowner perspectives also vary.

The yellow perch population is currently very low and down to where it was in the 1980s, said Heinrich. “It isn’t clear why yellow perch are at a low level of abundance, but perch tend to decline after zebra mussel invasions. We feel that northern pike are pretty high and we could expand their harvest. The season is already longer than most of the state, and maybe we could have it open year round here,” he noted, adding smallmouth bass and muskies have similar management challenges. “Not because their species is depressed but because there is virtually no interest in harvesting these species. The bass population went up as the water started to clear. Pike, who are sight-orientated, also started expanding and taking advantage of the clear water.”

What do the people say?

Four questions have been presented to anglers during an annual creel survey (a survey given to anglers to analyze data on fish and to get an idea of the fishing quality and recreational pressure a lake has been subject to): 1) Do you fish for walleye? 2) What is the main reason you fish for walleye on Mille Lacs? 3) How important is the opportunity to harvest a walleye? 4) Would you support extending the walleye harvest season to June 15 if it meant there was a walleye closure from July 15 to August 31?

Gauging what interest there is in a trade off is something the DNR wants to look at, he said.

Audience members brought up issues concerning gillnetting (a net sampling method used to trends in abundance), the reliability of hooking mortality rate, and tribal netting practices.

In-shore nets, to determine walleye population, were brought up by an audience member who questioned the accuracy of the count when walleye don’t prefer shallow, warm water. “Wouldn’t in-shore nets be getting less because they’ve moved out?”

Heinrich replied, “We have off-shore nets, and they are showing similar results to the near-shore nets.” He added that other estimating methods, not based on gillnetting, show similar results. “During the low period in 2015, we were looking at a quarter million [walleye], and now we have three quarter million with about seven to eight estimates.”

One audience member referenced the timeline of walleye decline, asking, “When did the Band start netting?” He added the netting started out slow but increased as time went on. Heinrich responded by saying they can only address the state’s fishing practices, not the Band’s.

Another audience member asked about hooking mortality and how the DNR estimates the number of walleye that die after their caught and released. Based on angler reports to creel clerks, the poundage of walleye and northern pike that die from hooking mortality is calculated and applied against the state’s harvest allocation, states the DNR website.

Heinrich explained the process to calculate this number, saying, “We had anglers go out fishing, and when we catch them, we put them in a tub and then bring them to a pen.” Heinrich admitted the fish are handled a fair amount and that there were a fairly large number in the pens. “Basically what we found is that hooking mortality goes up as water gets warmer.”

Comments in the breakout groups ranged widely from “We would like to eat more walleye” to “the lake always seemed to take care of itself in the 70s and 80s.”

Rep. Dale Lueck (District 10B) of Aitkin said, “When the lake does good, everyone can enjoy it and make an investment in it. And when it doesn’t, it can really plunder the economy.”

On participant said, “If you are trying to take care of the fisheries, close it in the summer.”

A lake business owner responded, “Do you realize the impact that would have on the resorts? Launch businesses would be hugely affected. What brings people to the lake is fishing in the summer.”

“I used to be able to keep six fish and now it’s zero, except for a very short time. The slots change all the time, and fighting the regulations is frustrating. The number one priority is that I want to fish and keep some fish. This burns me real bad,” said another group participant.

Regional Fisheries Manager (Central Region) Brian Nerbonne said, “We have a better walleye population and still trying to figure out how the lake is going to behave and don’t want to make rash decisions and say we need to bring the walleye population down because there is less forage. The fish aren’t turning belly up and dying like in other areas which had fishing open up temporarily. We’re not there yet.”

Dean Hanson, co-chair of MLFAC, said, “I want to hear what other people have to say so we can represent everyone. It is what it is right now, and they [DNR] are so limited in what they can do.”

Community input is still being gathered online through August 1. The survey can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/r/MilleLacs.

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