The state and Chippewa bands could be headed for mediation to settle a dispute over walleye kill overruns on Mille Lacs.
In a letter dated Sept. 13, Curt Kalk, natural resources commissioner of the Mille Lacs band, said Minnesota DNR proposals for handling walleye kill overruns of sport anglers on Mille Lacs are not acceptable.
"Our principal concern," Kalk wrote, "is that the state is currently violating and may continue to violate the court's order and the state's own stipulation in the treaty right litigation, and that this is threatening the health of the resource and impairing the band's treaty rights."
To placate the bands, the DNR had proposed a night fishing ban, a requirement to use barbless hooks, a ban on tullibee netting this fall and a ban on sorting fish. It also would issue an appeal to sport anglers to "show restraint" in the number of fish they catch and release. The proposals were sent to the band on Aug. 27.
Sport harvest currently is 70,000 pounds or more over the 300,000-pound quota for the year, said Ron Payer, DNR fisheries chief. The majority of that kill has been attributed to hooking mortality, or the death of fish that have been caught and released. It's estimated that about 7 percent of released walleyes die, but one of the highest catch rates ever recorded on Mille Lacs has pushed the state's kill beyond what could have been expected.
"When we developed our current set of regulations we were extremely restrictive with every intent on staying within our poundage," Payer said. "But the bite was 10 times higher than normal and anglers responded by showing up in huge numbers. The fishing pressure in June, July and August was the highest ever recorded on Mille Lacs for that period. The only option that we felt would reduce the kill was to close the lake, and we felt that was unreasonable, especially since we are in the first year of a three-year plan."
Kalk wrote that sport anglers' current overrun will "cause real injury" to the band's fall and winter fishing, a statement that mystifies Payer.
"The bands' fishing in the fall and winter is minimal," Payer said.
The DNR would like to replace its current three-year plan with a five-year plan, Payer said, but since the band did not like a three-year plan it almost certainly would object to a five-year plan.
"They want the state to stay under its quota every year, and if not then to address it the next year," Payer said. "But we felt we can develop a management plan over five years that would correspond to the bands' five-year plan. Whether or not that will come to fruition I'm not sure."
The DNR and the band also appear to disagree about the overall health of the walleye spawning stock in Mille Lacs. Kalk wrote the "spawning stock biomass (SSB) of Mille Lacs walleye is at the low end of its known historic range." Payer agrees, saying Kalk's statement is "probably true, based on our assessments," but that Mille Lacs is adequately supported by multiple year classes of walleyes and that the normal ebb and flow of good and bad spawning years will keep the lake in good shape.
The same holds for the forage base. Though reports from around the lake said perch were virtually non-existent and that the walleyes were exceedingly skinny, a mayfly hatch helped fill the forage void this summer and recent DNR test netting has revealed a huge class of young-of-the-year perch.
"With a lake like Mille Lacs," Payer said, "as long as the water quality and habitat remain good the forage will always come back. We never felt there was a biological crisis at hand. Mille Lacs has always produced a variety of forage. The lake has adjusted to ups and downs in the forage base for thousands of years. Whether the forage bounces back next year or in two or three years we don't know, but we do know it will bounce back. It appears that the perch are on their way back."
Sport fishing regulations for next year have yet to be decided on, Payer said. The current 14-16 inch harvest slot will probably remain in place through the coming winter season. After the annual fall assessment is finished and the first data from the new tagging study has been reviewed the DNR will develop a game plan, Payer said. "I don't anticipate (the regulations) will be more liberal," he added.
At an October meeting of the Minnesota 1837 Treaty Fisheries Technical Committee, a group of 24 representatives from the DNR, Chippewa bands and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, an attempt will be made to resolve the current dispute. If it can't be resolved through mutual give and take, the matter will be resolved by a mediator.
The list of potential mediators includes Howard Bellman, Lawrence Cohen, Gary Crippen, Thomas Fabel, Francis Xavier Herman, Franklin Knoll, Michael Landrum, Lou Remle, Robert Schefelbein and Mary Ann Short.
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