Report: Stick to two winter laker seasons

St. Paul – The DNR earlier this week presented to legislators
four reports mandated during the 2007 session.

The reports dealt with a walk-in program, aquaculture policy
recommendations, changes to the winter lake trout season, and the
status of the Leech Lake fishery.

What follows are the high points from the DNR reports submitted
Tuesday:

Winter lake trout

On one hand, having one winter lake trout season within and
outside of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota
definitely would simplify the fishing regulations for that species.
But what effect would it have on lake trout harvest, and thus, fish
populations in the state’s trout lakes?

Those were arguments the DNR mulled as it prepared a mandated
report for the state Legislature.

The conclusion was, simply: Don’t tinker with the season for a
species that exhibits certain vulnerabilities, especially in the
winter.

Though the season has varied over the years, currently there are
two winter lake trout seasons; the one inside the BWCAW begins
earlier and ends later than the season outside the remote area.
(This year, the season on lakes inside the BWCAW runs Dec. 29-March
31; outside the BWCAW, Jan. 12-March 16.)

The change considered in the DNR’s report would affect about 50
lakes lying outside, or partly outside, the BWCAW. In the outlying
area, the season would increase an estimated 50 percent (or four
weeks), according to the DNR. Meanwhile, it’s estimated the lake
trout harvest would increase by about 32 percent.

However, department officials say that the risk of overharvest
still is present, especially because of the general greater ease of
catching lakers in the wintertime – they’re more aggressive,
they’re found in shallower water. Other arguments, including growth
rates and other reproductive qualities, make it a greater risk than
it would be for other species.

Another consideration is that fishing pressure might likely
decrease on lakes in the BWCAW, because lakes outside the area are
open at the same time.

The DNR concludes in its report that it “remains concerned about
any expansion of seasons on lake trout.

“However, the DNR will further explore ways to simplify winter
trout seasons for lake and stream trout lakes (similar winter
seasons are in effect for lakes that harbor species like rainbows,
brook trout, and brown trout, and splake) while protecting the
trout fisheries in those lakes.”

Aquaculture

The DNR and other interest groups have worked for years on the
aquaculture issue, and, in the report, the DNR focuses on
aquaculture that occurs in public waters.

A number of recommendations are included. Among them:

€ Do not license fishless basins.

€ Do not issue permits for aquaculture in wetlands if 25 percent
or more of the basin is under a federal waterfowl conservation
easement, or if water levels of the wetlands are being managed with
state and federal duck stamp funds.

€ Create a fee system that, among other things, recovers the
cost to manage the program, and ties the fee to the amount of
public resources affected.

“DNR will begin implementing those recommended changes that are
within existing department authorities by initiating rulemaking and
changing agency procedures,” the report says. “In addition, DNR
will work with policy makers, other agencies and stakeholders
interested in implementing other recommendations that require
changes to statutes.”

The Leech Lake fishery

A few years of specific actions aimed at improving the walleye
fishery on Leech Lake appear to have worked, the DNR reported to
the Legislature. Now, the department must decide to do next.

What it would like to do is develop a new long-term plan, and it
would like to do so with the usual suspects who helped develop the
last plan that kicked in soon after a downturn in walleye fishing
in the early 2000s.

The goals of that five-year plan were to protect and maintain
spawning stock; improve and walleye size structure; and establish
two good year-classes, from 2005 through 2010. Strategies included
a slot limit, cormorant control, aggressive stocking, and
evaluation of the effects of rusty crayfish on walleyes.

“Based on the 2007 fish populations assessment, all management
goals delineated in the five-year management plan for Leech Lake
have been met or exceeded,” according to the DNR report.

The report said spawning biomass was above goal, good
year-classes were reported in 2005 and 2006, yellow perch numbers
are up (helping improve growth rates), and cormorant numbers have
declined thanks to a population-reduction program under the
direction of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the USDA’s Wildlife
Services.

Stocking has helped improve the overall population of walleyes,
but evidence suggests there is not a reproductive problem with
Leech Lake walleyes, so no stocking will occur in 2009. Per an
agreement, stocking will, however, occur this year.

In subsequent years, the DNR will conduct an open-water creel
survey of Leech. “This survey will document fishing pressure, (and)
harvest and catch rates of walleyes and other important sport
fish,” the report says.

Walk-in

Nearly 2 million acres across Minnesota are enrolled in private
land conservation programs, and those should be targeted with an
additional payment to provide walk-in access for hunting and
fishing, according to the Access to Minnesota Outdoors Plan.

“We recommend that current and future private lands enrolled in
these existing conservation programs serve as the backbone of the
walk-in program,” the report says. “It is unlikely that a
stand-alone walk-in payment will be sufficient incentive to entice
landowners to enroll on their own.”

The report also recommends short-term contracts, and that those
contracts have an opt-out provision.

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