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Anglers exceed Mille Lacs walleye quota, season continues anyway

ST. PAUL -- After a drastic increase in walleye deaths on Mille Lacs Lake, state officials announced Tuesday that anglers had exceeded a walleye quota agreed upon with local American Indian tribes, but the fishing season would continue anyway.

In accordance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources negotiates quotas on total allowable harvest with the tribes that hold fishing rights to the lake. Even though the 2016 open water season is catch and release, the state still tracks “hooking mortality” where fish are killed unintentionally in the course of being hooked and brought out of the water. Although the fish are reportedly biting well on Mille Lacs, officials say that doesn’t mean the population is fine because factors like weather and food can encourage fish to strike on lines.  

DNR survey data showed that the killing of walleyes by anglers skyrocketed from an estimated  6,950 pounds in June to 37,922 pounds in July. This exceeded the state’s quota of 28,600 pounds.

In a statement, Gov. Mark Dayton said he had directed the DNR to keep the season open, regardless.

“Closing the walleye fishing season on Mille Lacs would devastate area businesses and communities,” he said. “The State’s fisheries experts have assured me that continuing catch-and-release on Mille Lacs will not negatively impact the health of the walleye fishery.”

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said via a spokesperson that “we do not see a conservation issue” with keeping the season open and that closing it would have a “devastating” impact on local businesses.

Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief, said there wouldn’t be a conservation benefit to shutting the season down, as what happened at roughly the same time last season. Businesspeople on the lake have since leveled heavy criticism at the DNR for the decision.

“We’ve never experienced managing a catch and release fishery on Mille Lacs before, so we’re learning as we go here,” he said.

He added that the conservation benefit from stopping the season would be “marginal” relative to crimp it would put on area businesses.  

Asked why the state government didn’t simply move to catch and release in 2015 when the quota was reached rather than stopping the season altogether, Pereira said the circumstances were different.

“Last year, we were basically struck by how quickly that fishery was going,” he said. “By the time we knew what was going on, we went way past what catch and release could have done for us.”

Political and legal consequences unknown

It was not immediately clear how the decision to continue the walleye season would impact relations with the tribes that also harvest on the lake, but Dayton said he had asked tribal leaders “for their understanding and forbearance.”

Pereira said it was clear Dayton took responsibility for the decision, and it’s his office that must fully consider the impact of the regulations on the state’s businesses.

“We want to consider socioeconomics for sure, but it’s the Governor that really has to carry the water for that part of the management process,” he said.  

There is a precedent for the DNR to unilaterally change how much is harvested without agreeing with the tribe first. Although Pereira did not know the year offhand, he said there was an instance in the early 2000s where the tribe published a quota that was lower than what the DNR wanted.

In the event the tribes dispute the move to keep the walleye season going this year, there would be talks first between Pereira and his tribal opposite numbers, then Dayton and tribal leaders. If agreement still can’t be reached at that point, the two sides would go into mediation, Pereira said.   

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission is a key representative body that negotiates with the DNR on behalf of the tribes to establish the quotas. Dylan Jennings, a GLIFWC spokesperson, said Tuesday they had received notice that morning of the DNR’s decision.

“The tribes stayed within their quota as agreed upon, and they were looking for the same to come from the state,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is about the resource, and the health of that resource.”

Jennings did not offer comment when asked if GLIFWC would bring legal action against the DNR.

A statement from Susan Klapel, natural resources head for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, pointed out the band had put in place “dramatically restrictive” rules to make sure it held up its end of the agreement, but the DNR didn’t ban live bait.  

“As they have done every year, the tribes honored their commitment to stay within their share of the safe harvest limit to protect the lake for generations to come,” she said. “We are deeply disappointed to learn the state will not honor its commitment to do the same."

Mille Lacs Band spokesperson Owen Truesdell said there was no decision yet whether the Band would contest the DNR’s decision, or seek mediation.