Residents of Lake Mille Lacs call walleye closing a disaster

Debbie Griffin / Union-Eagle More than 60 residents of Lake Mille Lacs gathered at McQuoid’s Inn July 23 for a meeting called by the DNR to talk about the possible closing of the lake to walleye fishing as early as Aug. 4.

More than 60 people filled the event center room at McQuoid’s Inn on Lake Mille Lacs in Isle July 23 for a meeting called by the Department of Natural Resources after it had announced two days earlier, following its latest creel survey, that the lake is likely to reach its annual limit of walleye catches and could close to walleye fishing as early as Aug. 4.

Officials attending the meeting included DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Gov. Mark Dayton’s Deputy Chief of Staff Shawntera Hardy, Commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development Katie Clark Sieben, and state Senior Policy Adviser Molly Pederson, who facilitated the meeting.

The crowd wanted the representatives to tell the governor that the Lake Mille Lacs area needs disaster aid and that other solutions must be found besides closing the lake to walleye fishing. The crowd made clear that locals are suffering because of weak data, mismanagement and unfair limits, and the people suggested talking to local boat captains, who keep daily logs and would have reliable, realistic data.

Anglers and tribal fishermen of eight Chippewa bands share a total annual catch limit of 40,000 pounds of walleye. Each person fishing may harvest one walleye between 19-21 inches long or a trophy fish of more than 28 inches and may not fish at night.

A management agreement allows anglers to harvest an annual total of 28,600 pounds of walleye, and the bands may harvest 11,400 pounds. Ten years ago the shared limit was 600,000 of walleye.

The exasperated crowd said the area needs help to avoid a shutdown, and solutions could include better management, use of different hooks and the prevention of gill netting during spawning season. Other ideas included emergency relief, stocking the lake and establishing a hatchery. One man said the whole situation is about “power and politics.”

One person said 50 businesses have probably gone under in the past 10 years and that the state isn’t standing up for local people. He said their plight has been ignored by politicians who get paid whether walleye fishing is open or closed and claimed predator fish are the biggest enemy of the walleye.

“It’s so obvious to everyone who doesn’t have political interest,” the man said. “This is physically and emotionally draining.”

Another person said the governor should visit Lake Mille Lacs. People said they’d welcome the chance to take the governor out and show him water temperatures, actual floaters, fish sizes and other conditions in real time.

“This is disaster aid,” one man said, “tell the governor that.”

The resounding theme among the crowd is that the people of Lake Mille Lacs have repeatedly asked for help but gotten none. Their livelihood has slowed to a trickle because of “weak data” while suffering continues and businesses, from resorts and fishing guides to stores and restaurants, continue to weaken and close.

“It seems like what people see on the lake and what the data say are polar opposites,” said one woman.

Mille Lacs County Commissioners David Oslin and Genny Reynolds attended the meeting. Oslin said there is also concern at the county level and that he understands the need as threefold: help with immediate survival, a short-term management plan and a strategy for long-term sustainability.

“If we can’t figure out a way to keep this lake from being closed,” Oslin said, “shame on us.”

“I want you guys to fix our lake because this is our livelihood,” one man said.

Hardy thanked everyone for sharing their thoughts and reassured the crowd that the state staff members would be bring the issue to the governor that same day. She asked the affected people to make an assessment and offer “real numbers” about business and money lost, loans owed and other financial data to quantify the problem.

The crowd offered a solid statistic based on tourism reports: There has been a 60-70 percent reduction in tourism fees.

“I see it at the bank, and it’s not just the lake, it’s all the way down the line,” said Roger Tramm, lifelong resident of Isle and manager of the local branch of the First National Bank of Milaca. “I see all the people around here struggling.”

The audience members debated the value of advertising and marketing Lake Mille Lacs. The attendees said a decade ago, big groups of people came from multiple states to fish in Lake Mille Lacs, but now they don’t.

One said, “If you don’t have the product (walleye), you’re wasting your money on advertising.”

Hardy said there’s employment to consider and said the situation needs to be viewed as disaster recovery.

Tina Chapman, a board member of the Isle Chamber of Commerce and an owner of Chapman’s Resort, said after the meeting that it had been called quickly. She had gotten word of it two days before and said as she made calls to see if people could attend, they jumped at the chance.  The governor’s deputy chief of staff, Linden Zakula, said July 28 in a follow-up email that the governor had been unable to attend the meeting because he was in Washington, D.C., at Homeland Security meetings. Zakula said since the community gathering about Lake Mille Lacs, the governor has participated in two conference calls and two meetings and has set up a working group with members from the state departments of revenue, tourism, natural resources, and economic and employment development.

The activities, according to Zakula, are to “begin designing a financial aid package that will meet the needs of local businesses.” The governor believes the situation deserves his time and attention, according to Zakula, and Dayton will visit Lake Mille Lacs soon, possibly this week.

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