Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Chief Don Pereira and Regional Fisheries Manager Brad Parsons visited the Oct. 3 Mille Lacs County Board meeting for an anticipated informational session about the general state of affairs at Mille Lacs Lake. The two had been scheduled to visit another meeting that had taken place in August, but they’d had a schedule conflict.
Concern about lake health prompted officials to place restrictions on fishing in 2015, which have had a significant, detrimental effect on the area economy, businesses and residents. An August meeting on the same topic established that the county district including Mille Lacs Lake has shown a steady decrease in market value:
•2014 value – 33.7%
•2015 value – 32.2%
•2016 value – 31.5%
•2017 value – 30.2%
The group remarked how one-tenth of a percent in estimated market value represents about $2 million, and a full percentage point represents about $20 million.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, as well as East Side Township Chairman Steve Johnson attended both meetings and like the commissioners, were eager for information to bring back to the constituents they have been hearing from “constantly” since the walleye-fishing ban was implemented.
Local folks have long disputed the science applied in lake management and complain about the imbalance in harvest limits among anglers and the Native American bands with fishing rights on the lake.
Pereira began, “We’ve documented what we think are real and significant changes in the lake,” which he insisted are not “an aberration.”
He said there have been three independent assessments, each done a different way, and all of them show that the juvenile walleyes are not surviving. Pereira said Mille Lacs Lake is the most heavily fished body of water in the state, and he fears if regulations are relaxed now, it could cancel out the current conservation efforts.
He also mentioned another independent analysis now underway by Dr. Chris Vandergoot of the U.S. Geological Survey in Sandusky, Ohio. Pereira said the scientist had assembled his own team and was independently analyzing lake heath and study methodologies. The fisheries chief mentioned many other issues raised by the board and legislators.
Pereira said two types of invasive species put a “double whammy” on the lake since it is plagued by both zebra mussels and spiny water fleas, whereas most water bodies are infested by one kind. Those species feed on the plankton and other microscopic food sources that small fish usually eat, leaving the lake’s food web “disrupted.”
As for the Native American harvesting, Pereira said the limits are mandated in federal district court and the DNR has to accommodate the fishing rights of eight Indian bands. The DNR and bands are charged by the court with working out “cooperative management” within the assigned limits, and Pereira said the band had voluntarily reduced its allocation over the years in order to allow for more angling. Now the lake is at a point where limits cannot be stretched and regulations cannot be relaxed.
The fisheries chief addressed a “point of consternation” in talking about technical meetings that had been closed to the public. He said the standards used to be that the DNR could exceed its limit and then make it up at another time, but not during periods of concern.
“The conservation burden is very real here,” he said.
At one point last year, the DNR was going to exceed the limit so the lake could stay open to fishing through Labor Day, but the bands challenged the excess and had an “actionable grievance” against the state that prompted closed meetings. He said additionally, the technical meetings had not been secretive since legislators were able to attend them, but were not open in an effort to keep them from becoming politicized.
Pereira said the DNR had made two mistakes: It should have released its entire technical report immediately and the stamp that said it was confidential due to “attorney-client privilege” should have been removed.
Rep. Erickson said the person releasing the report the first time must not have understood it was a violation of the data-practices act and said the confidential stamp should have been removed as soon as the report was complete. She said the closed meetings raise issues of trust. She took exception with the fact that people attending the meetings for the band can provide input, but those attending for the state – as she was invited by the governor to do – cannot.
“I feel like the people aren’t represented,” Erickson said.
She said many see the bands’ practice of gill netting as detrimental and fear it will eventually result in closure of the lake. Pereira said over-fishing could result in the same thing and that the bands’ practices are monitored closely, too. He said he didn’t disagree about the closed meetings but they are within the federal-court protocol.
Karen McQuoid of Mac’s Twin Bay Resort, who sits on the Isle School Board said, “In the last four years, we’ve lost 10 percent of our students.”
McQuoid thanked the board for considering the situation and said she wants to be part of a solution to the problem. She’s concerned about the economic adversity and a shrinking work force. She encouraged the group to keep considering how the situation at Lake Mille Lacs affects the whole county. She said as the tax base in the northern end of the county collapses, the burden of it will fall to all the other taxpayers.
Tina Chapman, owner of Chapman’s Resort and a member of the tourism board, cited the $3 million economic relief package that has involved 30 loans and grants. She pointed out that in this way, the situation is already costing taxpayers money. Chapman said the management system is not working and needs to be changed because as it is, the lake faces challenges and impact through the year 2020.
Johnson said East Side has the biggest share of tax base in the area, and it’s down about 10 percent. He said he doesn’t think fish cannibalism has been analyzed – big fish eating the little fish – but it might support a move to let people harvest bigger fish. Johnson added that the federal protocols are not set in stone and have changed before.
After several people mentioned the “walleye class of 2013,” Parsons explained that yes, it was a strong class but had been preceded by four bad years. He said fish cannibalism is a factor but not so much when there are other things to eat.
Commissioner David Oslin observed that a number of things had combined to create the “perfect storm” of bad ecological conditions. Commissioner Tim Wilhelm asked about the practice of catch-and-release and hooking mortality. Why is the practice allowed when it kills fish?
Pereira said the only alternative would be to close the lake to walleye fishing, which the DNR is desperately trying to avoid. He said there is recreational value in being able to fish for walleye whether it can be kept or not.
The fisheries experts established that water temperature is a “really major” factor and said ecological changes are having a far greater effect on lake health than fishing. The group talked about similar restrictions at Red Lake and the resulting fix, but Pereira and Parsons said that situation was caused solely by humans killing too many fish, so the people developed a recovery plan.
Wilhelm asked what the recommended remedy is for Mille Lacs Lake, and Pereira said they do not have an answer to that question yet.