The Mille Lacs landowners, a group of private individuals with legal standing in the Mille Lacs Treaty lawsuit, have funded a review of the biological data used in setting Mille Lacs regulations.
Preliminary results of the review reveal that much of the data used in the regulation-setting process is invalid, yet the landowners' biologist was not allowed into this year's Technical Committee Meeting between the State and the Chippewa Bands to present his findings. Here are a few of the many glaring problems involving the data and the resulting regulations:
1) Although the Mille Lacs walleye population has remained remarkably stable over the years, tight regulations since treaty harvest started in 1998 have kept the average annual "total kill" (angler harvest plus catch-and-release kill plus Band harvest) 40 percent lower than in the pre-treaty-harvest years. This is a very significant decrease and is the lowest kill of any four-year period since records have been kept.
2) The tight slot imposed in June 2001 required anglers to release 14 walleyes for every one they kept. That drove the estimated "hooking mortality" to 70,000 pounds, compared to the Band harvest of 48,000 pounds. A slot this tight makes no biological sense and means that anglers are "releasing" nearly two dead walleyes for every one the Band nets or spears.
3) Tight slots threaten to throw the walleye population out of balance. The abundance of 16- and 17-inch walleyes, those targeted by the 2-inch slot and the Band's gillnets, is now more than 50 percent below the long-term average.
4) Regulation options are determined by the safe harvest level (SHL), which is arrived at by estimating the Mille Lacs walleye population each year. But the DNR does not use the traditional mark-and-recapture methods for making their population estimate. Instead, they rely on computer models that include a variety of sampling results, most of which are prone to considerable error. But even the gillnet sampling, considered to be the most reliable, has been criticized by reviewers because no nets are set in the mid-lake region, which the DNR ignores because it is "homogenous and unstructured." The DNR has set a few nets farther off shore in recent years, and those nets have caught an average of 55 percent more walleyes than the inshore nets, yet the off-shore sets have not been included in the modeling. One outside reviewer noted that "using this data (the off-shore sets) ... increased the estimates of abundance." Of course, a higher population estimate would lead to a higher safe harvest and more liberal regulations.
With so many uncertainties in the data, it makes little sense to regulate the harvest at levels below what the lake has historically been able to produce. Adopting regulations that result in hooking loss greater than the Band harvest wastes a precious resource. In light of the DNR's long history of conducting secret meetings with the Band on matters of great importance to anglers, it's not surprising that the DNR would exclude the landowners' biologist from the latest secret meeting of the 2002 Technical Committee.
(Randy Thompson is an attorney representing PERM and landowners on Mille Lacs.)
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