DNR: There’s more to proposed Mille Lacs facility than stocking
By Tim Spielman
St. Paul — When the DNR last week announced plans to “redouble” management efforts regarding Lake Mille Lacs, some of those plans were met with public skepticism, along with associated cost concerns of the state taxpayer.
But count Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief, among those who’s convinced the move is worth the money. In fact, given what may result from potential increased research of all things Mille Lacs, the benefits could stretch, some day, beyond the shores of the 130,000-acre Minnesota lake, for years the top dog in popularity among anglers.
“There are so many huge questions that still exist,” Pereira said about the mysteries that surround the decline of the lake’s walleye fishery – things from the effects of invasive species to why young walleyes can’t survive beyond years 1 or 2.
“I don’t have great trepidation about us wasting public money on this one,” he said.
That said, while the department intends to lease space for a new area fisheries office in the near future, the long-term possibilities might be in the hands of the state Legislature, which next session might be presented with a $3.5 million bonding request for the Mille Lacs project.
“We’re not duplicating our effort on Mille Lacs,” Pereira said, regarding personnel whose attention only will be on Mille Lacs. A Mille Lacs fisheries office – “We have 28 area offices around the state,” Pereira said. “If this proceeds we’ll have 29.” – would have its own area supervisor, or “project leader.” There would be no assistant supervisor, but instead an “outreach specialist.” Total cost for two new salaries, according to Pereira: with benefits, in the neighborhood of $180,000 to $200,000.
Additional staff likely will assist with monitoring activities, and potentially walleye stocking.
It’s the facility that’s envisioned that would eat up most of the $3.5 million. According to the DNR’s most recent Mille Lacs press release, “The facility will be built in the Mille Lacs community and will provide room for monitoring equipment and staff. The space will accommodate educational, visitor, and interpretive functions as well as serving as a location for public information meetings.”
Pereira, who’s spent much of his 30-plus DNR career as a fisheries researcher, foresees a facility where researchers, including possibly graduate students, can tackle the complexities of the Mille Lacs ecosystem.
“Mille Lacs is a critically important resource,” Pereira said. “Before it declined (walleyes), it was the most heavily fished lake in the state. It’s not excessive to put dedicated staff right there on the lake.”
Pereira said that creating within the facility the ability to hatch walleye eggs won’t be a large added cost. But the department needs to find the answers to a few questions – for example, the hatch rate of the eggs that are collected and fertilized.
Eggs from river-run walleyes that are collected elsewhere in the state sometimes boast upwards of an 80-percent hatch rate. On the other hand, lake-run fish collected at other locales produce eggs that hatch successfully only half the time. Walleye females and males collected from Mille Lacs (to ensure and maintain Mille Lacs-specific walleye genetics) will be used exclusively.
“People want to dismiss this genetics issue, but it’s very real,” Pereira said.
According to the press release: “The DNR will stock walleye fry in Mille Lacs in 2016 in a pilot effort to develop and refine techniques. While stocking is not necessary today with the abundant natural spawning, the DNR wants to be ready to go if and when such stocking becomes necessary.”
The stocked walleye fry also will be treated with a chemical mark so when fish are recaptured, DNR officials know whether they’re the result of the stocking or were hatched in the wild.
The DNR also stated in the release a 12- to 16-member panel representing businesses, anglers, local government officials, and others will be convened to “help guide future management decisions.” Another aspect of the department’s “outreach” plan is “increased transparency of quota setting.” To that end, the DNR will invite two “advisory committee members to attend and observe fisheries technical committee meetings.” There’s no word on if Indian bands will agree to that aspect.
While there undoubtedly are some business interests around Mille Lacs who welcome the new direction the DNR has taken, others aren’t so sure a lot of what’s now taking place isn’t just for show.
“A lot of political heat is still on, and a lot of ‘feel-good’ is going to come from it,” said Steve Johnson, of Johnson’s Portside in Isle, on the shores of Mille Lacs. Much of what’s being presented by the department, he said, is being perceived locally as “good-for-nothing political chatter.”
Case in point, according to Johnson, is the planned “pilot” stocking of walleye fry next spring. “It appeases some people who are fairly ignorant about what stocking can do,” he said.
One thing he and others wonder: How could, amid the problems that have plagued other year-classes of fish, the 2013 year-class do so well? Was it something the DNR did differently in terms of management?
Johnson said he’s seen the lake pull off year-classes like that one – one about 10 years ago, another 20 years ago.
“Mille Lacs fixes itself and always has,” he said.