Mille Lacs advisory council members grill DNR officials

Isle, Minn. — The Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee questioned Minnesota DNR fisheries personnel about the agency’s creel survey data and methodology at its latest meeting held at McQuoid’s Inn and Event Center on Jan. 28.

Those data were used to shut down walleye fishing on the lake last summer after state fisheries managers worried too much of Mille Lacs’ spawning stock was in danger of dying due to hooking mortality, an assertion widely questioned by many business interests on the committee that rely on the fishery.

The discussion about the state’s creel survey, the second of three main topics to be discussed during the scheduled 3.5-hour meeting, went on so long that the last and related topic of hooking mortality, derived from the creel survey data, was shelved for the next meeting.

As the clock was winding into the last hour, the committee was given the choice by DNR moderator Katie Clower to move on to hooking mortality, but chose to continue grilling the DNR on the creel.

“This was a shutdown,” said committee member Steven Johnson, of Johnson’s Portside in East Township. “You guys shut down the jewel of Minnesota over (the creel survey) and you think we are not going to question it?”

Johnson, echoed by other committee members, said it didn’t make sense that in a year when fishing pressure was way down, thanks to negative press about the famed walleye lake, the catch rate would continue to go up into July, which has happened only rarely.

“People are not satisfied with your numbers,” said committee member Dean Hanson, of Agate Bay Resort in Isle, after DNR staff had spent more than an hour explaining and fielding questions about the creel survey. “These are really important questions.”

It was because the DNR estimated state anglers reached their quota of 28,000 pounds of fish, which includes both fish kept and those estimated to die from hooking mortality – made worse by higher summer water temperatures – that the fishery had to be shut down, per the U.S. Supreme Court-decided guidelines of the fishery’s co-management between the state and tribal members of the 1837 Treaty.

Johnson and others questioned both Tom Jones, the DNR’s Aitkin-area regional treaty coordinator, and Eric Jensen, the DNR’s large lake specialist for Mille Lacs. Also on hand fielding questions were Bradford Parsons, DNR Central Region fisheries manager, and Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief.

The DNR noted that effort in July is usually half of what it is in May, but despite that, the catch rate continued to climb.

Johnson called that a “red flag” that didn’t make sense, something that should have been pored over by DNR Fisheries managers.

Jensen said that was done.

“We looked at the data pretty hard and made sure everything was in the right place,” he said.

Johnson, who had reviewed the more than 3,000 pages of creel reports from Mille Lacs’ 2015 season, noted one creel clerk in particular had higher numbers of fish than others.

“It’s not that she was doing something different than anybody else,” Jensen said. “Look at any of the survey periods when it’s going up when it should be going down and it tells us something is going on there, and it looks like it’s real.”

Jones said the last time such a dynamic was observed during the summer on the lake was in 2001, a year when perch and tullibee stocks in the lake were poor.

Jensen asserted a similar dynamic was likely at play again this year. With less food around for young walleyes to eat, they were much more likely to bite the offerings of anglers, and throw in some of the bigger walleyes that are still swimming around in the lake, and that added up to the quota being met quicker than anybody would have liked.

That theory is backed up by the fact that smaller walleyes in fall survey nets showed up largely in poor condition, meaning they were undernourished. It’s unclear whether DNR personnel swayed the likes of Johnson, who questioned everything down to the structure of creel data collection and the estimates that are derived from it.

Jones defended the creel, and asserted that although it appears from shore there aren’t many anglers on the lake, it’s a big lake.

“From shore, you don’t see a lot,” said Jones, having provided explanations of the methodology of the creel. “I don’t know how to explain it, but the math is solid. The math is good. I can’t make you believe it, but if you choose not to believe it, that’s up to you.”

The DNR-appointed committee, made up of diverse angling interests around the lake, first heard from three members of the 1837 Fisheries Technical Committee, which had just set the allocation for the summer fishing season, repeating last year’s 40,000-pound quota, divided unevenly between state and tribal anglers.

In late 2015, some committee members chided the DNR for not allowing a committee representative to be present at the 1837 Fisheries Technical Committee meeting, but Pereira said this was because tribal interests balked at the idea. Pushed on that topic again, Pereira said, “What they have offered to do is what we are doing tonight.”

The three representatives of the 1837 Fisheries Technical Committee’s modeling subgroup were Melissa Treml, DNR Fisheries research manager, Joe Dan Rose, inland fisheries section leader for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and Mark Luehring, inland fisheries biologist.

The subgroup provides science-based recommendations to the committee. Its Jan. 20-21 meeting was outlined, which included a list of topics ranging from the status of the fishery to recommending 2016 harvest levels and population benchmarks for walleyes.

Luehring noted the band’s fall electrofishing survey results, which showed the 2015 and 2014 year-classes of walleyes don’t appear to be particularly good year-classes that would be expected to make the contribution the excellent 2013 year-class is hoped will.

The 2015 year-class this fall had a catch rate of 18.9 fish per survey mile, and the 2016 year-class had a rate of 2.7 fish per mile, both about half the median catch rate (33.9 per mile and 5.1 per mile, respectively). Rose said it’s possible those year-classes are better than they’ve shown.

With those last two year-classes gauged where they are, that solid 2013 year-class must be protected as spawning stock, which is why the quota was kept conservative.

Asked if the other bands would be following the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in its announcement last year that it would not net walleyes on the lake, Rose said GLIFWC had not heard as much from the other bands, and, on that topic, it had not heard whether the Mille Lacs band still intended to harvest walleyes with spears, either.

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