Red Lake Band, DNR: Fishery is in great shape

By Joe Albert

Staff Writer

Bemidji, Minn. – While Red Lake supports what officials call a
surplus of spawning-sized walleyes, both the DNR and Red Lake Band
of Chippewa plan to play it safe in terms of allowable harvest, at
least right away.

The state will allow anglers to harvest 108,000 pounds of
walleyes between May 13 and Nov. 30. Then a winter harvest level
will be set. If that doesn’t change, anglers would be able to take
another 108,000 pounds during the hardwater season, for a total of
216,000 pounds.

The band will take the same amount of walleyes on a per acre
basis as state anglers are allowed – 4.5 pounds per acre, or
531,000 pounds between May 13 and Nov. 30 (or about 1.06 million
pounds during the open and hardwater seasons), according to Pat
Brown, fisheries biologist for the band.

The state controls about 48,000 acres; the band about 236,000.
The spawning stock biomass in Red Lake right now is between three
and four pounds per acre, meaning there is a surplus of
spawning-sized fish. At that level, both the band and the state
could have harvested up to five pounds per acre.

But both are playing the first season safe; neither wants to
risk a collapse of the fishery, blamed on overharvest in both state
and band waters. Red Lake has been closed to walleye fishing since
1999.

‘We don’t want to go through that again,’ Brown said. The plan
for the future: ‘Be a lot more cautious and careful.’

Once the lake was closed in 1999, the band, state, and Bureau of
Indian Affairs began an every-other-year fry stocking program
(1999, 2001, and 2003). More than 105 million fry were stocked at a
cost of about $70,000 per stocking. (The state paid $30,000; the
tribe $40,000.)

Those efforts paid off, as gill net catches during surveys are
where they were before the collapse.

What’s in the lake

Brown and Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor in
Bemidji, both say the lake is back, and likely healthier than
ever.

Walleye abundance has been high in the past, but never as
diverse as now.

‘In the past when we had those kinds of abundances, it was made
up of one or two incredibly strong year-classes,’ Barnard said.
‘That wasn’t a very stable situation.’

The lake now has five major year-classes of walleyes – one from
each of the three fry stockings, and two from just before the lake
was closed, Brown said.

For years, the band has used 48 gill net sets to survey the
lake’s walleye population. In 1996, there were four walleyes in the
nets, Brown said. In 1997, the band closed its commercial fishery,
but allowed subsistence gill netting. It completely closed its
fishery in 1998, the same year the state went to a two-fish bag
limit.

Results from state gill nets were similar to band results. The
state does 20 gill net lifts each year on the lake. Leading up to
the lake’s closure, catches dropped as low as about three walleyes
per lift, Barnard said.

In 1999, the band and state agreed to a complete walleye harvest
moratorium on the lake, and implemented the stocking program. Since
then, gill net catches have dramatically increased. The state’s
gill net catch peaked at about 40 walleyes per net. And last year,
the band caught more than 1,200 walleyes in its nets.

State gill net catches are in the range of about 20 to 30
walleyes per lift. Those figures are comparable to the gill net
lifts in the 1980s and ‘90s, but are more desirable because they
include more year-classes of fish, Barnard said.

‘It has moderated as the population has started to stabilize,’
Barnard said.

In deciding to open the lake to fishing, the state and band
coordinated their surveys (the state, for example, expanded its
shoreline seine program to match that of the band), and shared
information each had from before the collapse, Barnard said. The
coordinated surveys were analyzed together, and managers are trying
to manage the lake as a whole, ‘not segmented with an imaginary
line down the center of the lake,’ Barnard said.

2006 and beyond

Beginning with the May 13 walleye opener, the state will limit
anglers to two walleyes per day, and anglers must release all
walleyes between 17 and 26 inches. They can keep one walleye over
26 inches per day. The estimated harvest will be based on creel
surveys. If the 108,000-pound harvest cap is reached, angling on
state waters will cease until Dec. 1, when the winter harvest level
will be set.

Included in the quota is hooking mortality, calculated based on
models from studies on Lake Mille Lacs. In early months, when the
water is cool, hooking mortality is expected to be around 2
percent; between 5 and 10 percent annually, said Ron Payer, DNR
Fisheries chief.

The DNR will do running estimates of harvest every two weeks,
and hooking mortality will be included. Based on harvest and
hooking mortality, ‘when we anticipate reaching that 108,000
pounds, then we would be at a point where we need to close it
down,’ Payer said.

Outside of the harvest quota, it’s less clear what the band will
do. Band members are in the process of deciding whether they will
net commercially, use hook-and-line, or both, Brown said.

‘I really don’t know when that decision will be made,’ Brown
said. ‘The Tribal Council said it will meet with people, come up
with a plan, then when the plan is in place they will announce
it.’

The state doesn’t have any official input into how the band
manages its part of the lake, but has discussed it with the
band.

‘What we’ve talked about at considerable length is the ability
to monitor and actually have a very good handle on the amount of
harvest that’s coming out,’ Barnard said. ‘(The band) understands
there is a need to have accurate counts of harvestŠ

‘There’s definitely a desire and commitment on their part to
make sure that happens,’ he said.

Barnard also noted that with a commercial fishery, harvest is
easier to quantify, since people have to weigh-in their fish.

However the band manages its fishery, both it and the state
signed an agreement that will limit the maximum harvest, depending
on the spawning stock biomass of the lake. If there are more than
three pounds per acre, the maximum harvest on state waters would be
240,000 pounds during one walleye season; maximum harvest on band
waters would be about 1.2 million pounds during the same time
period.

The optimal spawning stock is two to three pounds per acre.

The harvest plan both the state and band will follow is based on
spawning stock. The plan is designed to allow for changes in
harvest based on what spawning stock is necessary to have
consistent reproduction, Barnard said.

‘We know a lot more about it now than we did prior to the
collapse,’ he said. There are data available to help identify
‘problems developing before they happen. That’s the safety net we
have this time.’

The harvest plan is within a larger memorandum of understanding
between the state and the band, and is a written commitment to
follow the plan, Payer said.

‘It’s not a binding document, per se, from a legal standpoint,’
he said. ‘But it is on paper a commitment from both sides. So far,
everyone has adhered to it very well.’

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