Minnesota to make first pitch for Mille Lacs changes

St. Paul — By the time Outdoor News readers view this story, state and tribal officials may already have taken the unusual step of scheduling a second meeting of the fisheries technical committee in summertime, to discuss management of the Lake Mille Lacs fishery for the next five years.

Usually a “casual,” one-time event, this summer’s meeting was likely to have a more dramatic flair, given the state DNR’s concerns about a trend in the lake toward fewer small male walleyes – and the likely contribution to the phenomenon by tribal gill-netting in the springtime.

In June, the DNR sent a letter to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, as well as the Fond du Lac Band in Minnesota and six Wisconsin bands (represented by the umbrella Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission), expressing concerns with things such as the downward spiral of small male walleyes, changing the tribal harvest season to match the timeframe for the safe harvest estimates, addressing northern pike mortality, and tribal harvest often falling short of declarations.

“The bands haven’t really given us any feedback yet, just acknowledgement they received the letter,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries research and policy manager.

A previous court decision allows the DNR (or tribes) to challenge management practices in the name of conservation.

The meeting Thursday in Cloquet, Pereira said, likely would be followed by another meeting – and perhaps another.

Pereira said the summer technical committee meeting usually consists of a standard agenda, “usually low-key, with no major decisions.” Spring fish survey work reports are made, and fish allocations – tribal and state anglers – are discussed. Most times the meeting easily is completeable in half a day.

This year, he said, the DNR will encourage the usual items are expedited, and wrapped up by noon. “In the afternoon, we’ll discuss the larger issues,” Pereira said.

The Thursday meeting will be mostly about information exchange, Pereira said. What happens after that remains to be seen.

Should the state and bands not agree on fisheries (walleye, mostly) management for Mille Lacs, there’s a dispute-resolution process in place, Pereira said. As a last resort, a professional mediator is called upon to settle the matter.

The joint tribal-state meeting isn’t open to media, he said, because open meeting laws do not apply, and some tribal officials have expressed a desire not to have reporters at the meeting. However, elected officials from Minnesota have been invited in the past to observe the proceedings.

GLIFWC officials weren’t available for comment prior to Outdoor News press time.

Sondra Erickson, a state House member from Princeton, said she’s requested several times in the past to open the meeting to the public, but has been unsuccessful. Erickson said she and her constituents are concerned about walleye “gender imbalance” and the lack of accounting for pike killed in tribal gill nets (but not counted toward the quota) in Mille Lacs.

Erickson said she also introduced a plan that would require legislative approval of the Mille Lacs plan, not because it necessarily was needed, but “to put the DNR on notice that we the people want to know what’s being talked about … in the meeting.”

Earlier, Pereira said DNR data suggested an overhaul of the way in which Mille Lacs is managed may be required to prevent a possible setback in walleye numbers and fishing. Fewer large males might in the future lead to smaller year-classes, overall, the DNR says. And it’s largely the tribal nets, set in early spring, that catch those males. In its letter to the bands, the DNR says “quotas declared in the bands’ 2013-17 plan could approach or exceed the total proportion of males in the harvestable surplus.”

Further, “ … band declarations should be a function of male spawning biomass, not of total safe harvest level, and no longer an arbitrary value based on growth in the tribal fishery.”

The DNR also is concerned that earlier-than-normal ice-out on the lake could mean the tribal fishing season, which ends March 31, may or may not match the timeframe used to estimate safe harvest.

Besides increased tribal accountability for northern pike caught in gill nets, the DNR wants tribal declarations that better match the actual take of walleyes.

“Management actions imposed on state anglers are based on bands taking their full quota. If band harvest is substantially less than their declared quota, the effectiveness of the state’s management actions may be reduced because more fish will be available for angler harvest.”

Pereira said most of the fisheries data for the lake come from the state DNR, and most of that information from trawl net surveys conducted. He said the Fond du Lac Band and GLIFWC personnel do some electrofishing, too.

He said the department has greater faith in the effectiveness of netting, though “it’s good to have redundancy of gear types.”

The first five-year plan was agreed upon by the state and tribes in 2002. This is the third round since co-management of the lake began.

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