Mille Lacs walleye season to close Sept. 6
St. Paul — The walleye-fishing season on Lake Mille Lacs seemed destined for closure midway through July, but because of a directive from Gov. Mark Dayton, it remained open. But that season’s fate was sealed late Tuesday, when Dayton and Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr announced the season – which has been catch and release only since it opened in May – would close Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day.
Recent updates in walleye kill data – hooking mortality is what’s killed state angler-caught fish this season, which piled onto the state’s quota overage – along with continued displeasure expressed by Mille Lacs Band leaders, prompted the closure.
As of Aug. 15, state anglers had killed – based on creel data and hooking mortality estimates – about 45,300 pounds of walleyes, more than 16,000 pounds more than the 28,600-pound state quota.
The Mille Lacs Band, as well as other band members who fish Mille Lacs, “were in strong disagreement with the state’s decision to continue with the catch-and-release (walleye) season after reaching the quota,” said Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director. “Given those concerns, the state decided to close the walleye season.”
Following Dayton’s Aug. 9 decision to continue with the walleye-fishing season on Mille Lacs, tribal leaders issued a number of statements.
In a message to band members, Mille Lacs Tribal Chair Melanie Benjamin stated: “ … the state of Minnesota has broken its agreement on the ogaa (walleye) harvest for the second year in a row … and has asked for our understanding.”
Benjamin states in the note that band members, primarily from Mille Lacs, stayed beneath their 11,400-pound walleye allocation – fish that primarily were speared this spring. She added, “As requested by our Drum Keepers and Elders, all of the bands have sacrificed greatly in taking less than our communities need. The State, however, has not exercised the same restraint.”
Benjamin hinted at possible litigation in the message: “Our attorneys who have represented the Band on our treaty rights litigation for the past 30 years – and who won that case in the U.S. Supreme Court – are working closely with (the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission) and attorneys from other Bands to determine our best legal options to protect the lake and our rights.”
Niskanen said despite talks of litigation, there’s a process for when there’s disagreement between the state and tribe. The first step in the dispute resolution process, he said, is mediation. And regarding the current kerfuffle, not even the first step in the process had commenced.
Niskanen pointed out that the season closure isn’t because continued harvest would pose a “conservation risk.” He said data indicate that there’s been just a 1 percent exploitation rate of the valued 2013 walleye year-class, and just 3 percent exploitation of the current spawning class of fish.
Conserving the 2013 year-class of juvenile walleyes until the fish reach spawning age is a critical component of recovering the Mille Lacs walleye population, according to the DNR.
“It’s more about (the DNR’s relationship) with the bands,” Niskanen said.
But in a statement from earlier this month, Susan Klapel, Mille Lacs Band commissioner of natural resources and environment, disputed the effects of continued walleye fishing by state anglers.
“ … Our biologists believe the state’s decision to exceed its share of the agreed safe harvestable limit will prolong and could negatively impact the ability to rebuild the Mille Lacs walleye population in the future,” Klapel said.
Niskanen said due to the department’s emergency rules regarding closure, anglers will be allowed to continue fishing walleyes in the 132,000-acre central-Minnesota lake through Labor Day.
Fishing for other species, like the popular fall muskie fishing, won’t be affected by the walleye-fishing closure, he said.
The Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Group met earlier this week to discuss the DNR’s decision.