Walleye stocking on tap for Lake Mille Lacs

St. Paul — As the Lake Mille Lacs saga continues on the heels of the closure of the walleye-fishing season, the DNR is moving ahead with plans for the future.

Among the immediate changes is shifting management responsibility for the lake. The DNR’s Aitkin-area Fisheries office had managed the lake, but no longer will. Additionally, stocking Mille Lacs with walleye fry will begin next year, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said earlier this week.

DNR biologists in the past have said stocking won’t help because plenty of natural reproduction takes place. The issue, they say, is young walleyes aren’t growing to adulthood.

“We have looked at stocking in the past and concluded it wasn’t necessary,” Landwehr said. “But looking at the future, if the population doesn’t rebound in the way it should, we can envision that we would get to a point where we would have to do supplemental stocking.”

Gov. Mark Dayton said he supports an “all-out stocking” program.

While stocking will occur next year, DNR officials don’t know yet how many fish will be stocked, so they also don’t know how much the effort will cost. They know the eggs will come from walleyes in the lake, but they don’t know (in part because Mille Lacs is infested with aquatic invasive species) if an existing hatchery can be used to hatch them. It’s possible they’ll have to use some sort of mobile hatchery, Landwehr said. All of the stocked fry will be marked so DNR staff can determine how well they survive.

“The belief is that in the case of Mille Lacs, it only ought to have to be done as an emergency measure,” Landwehr said. “We should not have to stock it.”

The agency is working to finalize a proposal to build a research center and fish hatchery on the shore of Mille Lacs. The DNR’s current estimate is $3.5 million to purchase land and get the facility up and running, but Sarah Strommen, DNR assistant commissioner, emphasized that’s a “working number.”

“Nothing is final yet. We’re still in the process of firming up that proposal,” she said.

Landwehr envisions having two staffers there – a lake manager and an outreach person  to work with the local community. He’d like to get those people on board as soon as possible, but he isn’t certain of the timeline. In the interim, Brad Parsons, the DNR’s Fisheries manager for the Central Region, is filling the management role.

Having a manager solely responsible for Lake Mille Lacs will be new for the Fisheries Section, but it’s already done in the Wildlife Section. While most wildlife management areas are managed out of area Wildlife offices, the larger complexes – the Lac qui Parle WMA, for example – have their own managers.

Legislative action

A legislative advisory committee met twice last week and was set to meet Thursday this week as lawmakers consider options for assisting Mille Lacs-area businesses. Gov. Dayton wants to call a special session of the Legislature to focus on providing aid.

Some lawmakers oppose the idea of a special session. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said other communities in the state are facing struggles, too.

McNamara was also among the lawmakers who pushed DNR officials to explore the possibility of re-opening the lake to walleye fishing. Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, wanted DNR and tribal officials to “put together some sort of agreement” to re-open the walleye season.

But re-opening the walleye season on the lake before the next fishing year begins Dec. 1 isn’t in the cards, Landwehr said.

“We’re not going to do that, obviously,” he said.

Catch and release?

Each January, the state DNR and the American Indian bands that co-manage the lake meet to begin hashing out a number of items related to management of Mille Lacs.

“(In January 2015) the bands did propose there be catch-and-release-only state fishing and they proposed tribal ceremonial netting,” Landwehr said.

But DNR officials believed the lake could handle a small amount of harvest (the safe allowable harvest eventually was set at 40,000 pounds), so “we pushed back on that,” Landwehr said.

The state’s allocation was 28,600 pounds of walleyes. Models showed a 20-percent chance anglers would exceed that allocation with regulations that allowed them to harvest one fish between 19 and 21 inches, or one over 28 inches.

“By all measures – historical averages, historical patterns – we should have been able to stay within that,” Landwehr said.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the walleye season on the lake closed Aug. 3. The Mille Lacs Band has announced its members won’t net the lake in 2016, except for ceremonial purposes. The other seven bands that in the past have harvested walleyes from the lake haven’t said whether they’ll net in 2016. 

Cormorant control

The DNR is beginning a process that could result in cormorant control on Mille Lacs. When the agency was working to restore Leech Lake, cormorant removal was a key component. The number of cormorants at Mille Lacs is about 20 percent of the number that were at Leech.

“Even if they are just having a marginal impact on walleyes, that’s something we have to consider,” Landwehr said.

The DNR is in the initial stages of requesting a cormorant-control permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Any control that may happen wouldn’t occur until next year, Landwehr said.

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