New walleye slot likely by May ’04 opener

Starting with the May 15, 2004 fishing opener, Mille Lacs
walleye anglers will quite likely have greater opportunity to eat
some fish, thanks to an expected liberalization of the legal
“keeper” zone. Specifics of possible changes were not announced as
of Jan. 20.

It appeared very probable, but not certain, that the 17- to
28-inch protected slot on Mille Lacs walleyes (with a
daily/possession limit of 4 fish, including no more than one over
28 inches) in effect for the 2003 season would be altered.

DNR personnel were already dropping hints last fall. Outdoor
writers were treating them like fact. The local Mille Lacs
grapevine heated up. And at the annual Minnesota Fishing Roundtable
in St. Cloud on Jan. 9-10, research biologist Jack Wingate, from
DNR’s St. Paul headquarters and the agency’s top point person on
treaty fisheries management, affirmed that change is in the
offing.

Given the 450,000-pound walleye quota for state anglers for the
2003 season, and an estimated total harvest of only 66,500 pounds,
it seems reasonable to allow anglers more harvest, Wingate
suggested.

Look for the following sequence of events:

1. After the Jan. 21-22 meeting of the state-tribal Treaty
Fisheries Technical Committee, the 2004 Mille Lacs “safe harvest
level” or quota will be announced.

2. DNR officials will meet with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Input
Group (a representative group from the Mille Lacs fishing community
and local governments), to discuss possible regulation options for
the sport fishery. The objective likely will be to provide maximum
harvest opportunity while not exceeding the 2004 safe harvest
level.

3. An official announcement of the 2004 regulations probably
sometime in February.

While state personnel seemed confident of regulation change,
they conceded in mid-January, prior to the Technical Committee
meeting with tribal representatives, that nothing was written in
concrete as of that time. Under the court-approved treaty fisheries
management agreement governing harvest in the Minnesota portion of
the 1837 ceded territory, regulation changes by either side, state
or tribal, must be floated past the other party. If one party’s
objections or challenges cannot be resolved at the DNR Commissioner
level, there’s always the possibility of formal legal complaints
and a court process.

Dividing the pie

The Chippewa bands involved in 1837 treaty harvest have an
automatic 100,000-pound share for their mainly-gill net fishery, no
matter what the overall annual Mille Lacs safe harvest level might
be. The state’s share for state-licensed anglers will be the
remainder of the overall safe harvest level. In 2003, the total
walleye safe harvest level for the state and tribal fisheries
combined was 550,000 pounds. The share for tribal netters was
100,000 pounds, and 442,000 pounds for state-licensed sport
anglers. (An 8,000-pound penalty was subtracted from the 03 angler
quota because of a 2002 quota overage.)

Under treaty fisheries management the Mille Lacs statistical
year runs from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30. Thus, at least for statistical
purposes, the 2003 season included the 2002-03 ice fishing season
and the 2003 open-water season. Although the upcoming 2004
Minnesota walleye opener is on May 15, the 2004 statistical year
began on Dec. 1.

Therefore, fish caught during the 2003-04 ice fishing season,
including last December, are applied to the 2004 angler harvest and
catch tallies.

Low 2003 angler harvest, but

One immediate reason behind the present push towards a more
liberal slot limit on Mille Lacs walleyes is the ultra-low
66,500-pound 2003 angler harvest (total kill), which landed about
384,000 pounds below the 03 quota. Actually, the estimated
take-home total was about half that, the other half chalked up to
“hooking mortality.”

While press reports frequently have emphasized the low walleye
harvest “the lowest ever” was the typical line total walleyes
caught in 2003 was a DNR-estimated 550,000 pounds, about five times
the “lowest ever” modern Mille Lacs catch, 110,000 pounds, tallied
in the slow season of 1985. Before the era of size restrictions and
treaty management slot limits, the walleye harvest (fish killed)
and walleye catch were quite similar, as anglers mainly kept
keeper-sized fish.)

The fairly high catch poundage and low walleye catch numbers
aside, the total walleye poundage caught in 2003 was in line with
the historic Mille Lacs average, thanks to the spectacularly large
size of the walleyes.

Starting with the winter of 2002-03, the 2003 season seemed
especially tough to Mille Lacs anglers and guides after everybody
got spoiled during the super-heated bite of winter 2001-2002 and
the 2002 open-water season, when the estimated total walleye catch
exceeded 4 million pounds.

The 66,500-pound 03 angler harvest marked the first time the
tribal walleye take (around 70,000 pounds) exceeded the angler
harvest since the separate Chippewa net fishery and state-tribal
co-management debuted at Mille Lacs in 1997.

Another less-direct reason for a regulation change allowing more
walleye harvest by state anglers is a growing sense that the
economic, social, and political costs of treaty fisheries
management are too high. Many complain that the present system
ensures that themes of controversy and “problems” surround the
Mille Lacs fishery and its management, regardless of how fast or
slow the fishing might be.

Pulling and tugging

Just where on the ruler an opening of the walleye slot might be
made remained unclear and seemed to challenge the guessers. Sure,
there are above-average numbers of big fish past their spawning
primes and on their way out but would DNR managers actually
encourage the keeping of 26-, 27-, or 28-inch walleyes? That could
bring an image problem and reaction from some angling leaders.

Also, some point out, harvesting fish in the 17- to 24-inch
range might trigger concerns about “spawning biomass,” an issue
often raised by the tribal co-managers of Mille Lacs, and
“targeting” prime spawners. (DNR biologists don’t consider it an
issue. Anglers point out that the lake is stacked with “spawning
biomass.”

And some will urge protection at the low end of the walleye size
spectrum, especially the upcoming strong year-classes of 2002 and
2003. But maybe, others suggest, it’s best to whack some of them
when they’re small, since they’re apt to flood the fishery in a
year or two and, if there’s a strong bite, push anglers over their
quota in 2005 or 2006.

These and other lines of reasoning, including angler rights and
what’s best for the fishing economy, will spice the discussion
leading to a decision about the 2004 Mille Lacs regs. Watch the
news!

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