Of this state’s 10,000-plus lakes, none is more tightly regulated, more closely scrutinized and more wildly popular among anglers than Mille Lacs Lake.
Knowing that, also know this: There will be plenty of disappointment (and probably anger) later this month when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announces rules drafted to guide the lake’s 2013-14 harvest levels, especially involving walleye.
Emotions aside, those rules must be built on three priorities: Improve the fishery’s long-term health. Protect the region’s economy while achieving the first priority. And be willing to step away from past management and harvest practices, some or all of which likely have contributed to current problems.
The most notable, short-term problem facing Mille Lacs is a rapidly declining walleye population, especially of fish in the size range anglers are allowed to keep — roughly 13 to 17 inches. Anglers have believed that for a few years. An October netting survey by the DNR validated it when results yielded the lowest walleye counts in 40 years. The DNR’s response: Cut by 50 percent — from about 500,000 to 250,000 — the total number of pounds of walleye that can be harvested in the coming year.
Walleye, though, aren’t the only fish struggling. The hot summer of 2012 took its toll on tullibees, a key part of the food chain. And anecdotal evidence points to very few jumbo perch now, which have long been another angling staple of the lake.
Finally, other factors not to be overlooked as contributing to the problems could include invasive species, warmer water, and, as mentioned, harvest practices that make Mille Lacs truly unique.
Indeed, no other Minnesota lake faces the dual threat of intense angling pressure year-round and tribal spring walleye netting.
The basic challenge is to rebuild the walleye population, ideally with more balance. But that won’t be easy — and not just because you can’t control Mother Nature.
The regional economy relies heavily on angling, which means stricter limits might keep anglers away. Plus, the impacts of tribal netting must be publicly examined. Now, when DNR and Indian fishery experts discuss netting the lake, the meetings are closed to the public.
Knowing the top priority is protecting the fishery in the long term, that needs to change. Similarly, both anglers and netters need to recognize they might face tighter restrictions in the short term.
After all, it makes little sense to keep doing what’s been done. Didn’t such practices help put the fishery in this precarious position?
— St. Cloud Times