Since it began meeting in October, the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee’s discussions included consternation over how the public might perceive the decline in the walleye population on Mille Lacs Lake.
The citizen committee’s public relations concerns came to a head when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced regulations that using live bait or keeping walleye would be banned for the season, and later factored in the DNR’s decision to relent and let live bait be used.
Before the April 7 announcement that the live bait ban would be lifted, the DNR hosted a conference call between Commissioner Tom Landwehr, DNR Fisheries head Don Pereira, and members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory committee. The DNR posted an audio recording of the call online in the interest of transparency.
Reversing previously established rules was not something the DNR took lightly, Landwehr told the group.
“That’s not something we like to do, flip-flopping on regulations,” he said. “So, I hope that there will be a strong recommendation, a strong consensus, on how we ought to go forward.”
Advisory Committee Co-Chair Dean Hanson said an “overriding majority” of committee members were against the live bait ban. Members of the public the committee talked to were also against it, he said, because it would stymie inexperienced or casual anglers.
“A lot of fishermen don’t know how to fish artificials, and currently they’re not willing to learn,” Hanson said. “We’re alienating a very large group of fishermen who may never come back. We’re also giving the press and any internet groups more reason to keep us in the news, and kind of single us out, and dump on us.”
Landwehr said the DNR’s objective was to balance the ecological and social concerns on the lake.
“We thought we were doing that,” Landwehr said. “I guess time will tell what we might be giving up. We’ll all cross our fingers and hope for the best.”
DNR biologist Melissa Treml said allowing live bait would be “2-3 times more risky” for chancing an Aug. 1 shutdown of the lake, compared to keeping the live bait ban in place.
Landwehr took care more than once during the call to assure the committee members the decision about whether to go back to live bait would not be attributed to them, as they had feared.
“That’s not the way this will be portrayed,” he said.
Indeed, the DNR’s announcement of the repeal of the live bait ban for the most part portrayed the committee as a conduit through which opposition to the ban flowed, rather than the source itself of the opposition.
“The DNR is hearing that anglers are accepting of the catch-and-release aspect of the walleye season, but members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee heard clear concerns about the live bait restriction, as did the DNR,” Pereira said in the press release announcing the decision.
The committee’s anxiety over public perception of the lake—as well as friction between its members and the DNR—was also evident in the days leading up to the March 21 announcement of the initial catch-and-release-fishing-only and artificial-bait-only policy.
In response to a request under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the DNR released emails between Advisory Committee members and DNR officials.
A March 20-21 email thread entitled “Media S**t Storm” talked about the press’ attention to the committee and how committee members could harness it to advance their own messaging, independent of the DNR.
It was originally between Advisory Committee members only, not DNR employees, but Jamie Edwards, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s representative on the committee, forwarded the thread to Pereira.
In the thread, Mille Lacs Area Tourism Director Tina Chapman warned the other members about the media scrutiny about to ensue, amid the hot-button announcement of regulations.
Mille Lacs Lake is co-managed between the DNR and local American Indian bands as the result of a U.S. Supreme Court case reaffirming tribal gathering rights under treaties signed in the 1800s with the U.S. government.
Steve Johnson of Johnson’s Portside resort said the media attention could be channeled to help end what committee members referred to as “treaty fisheries management” or TFM.
“Maybe we can take this heavy media coverage and use it to let them know we want to change TFM or at the least challenge it,” he said. “I am sure some won’t want to say that but if a bunch of us do…”
Angling representative Cheryl Larson agreed with Johnson and added she felt the Advisory Committee was merely a tool to maintain the status quo.
“I feel this group is used to try to keep things under control as a directive of the governor,” she said. “I for one don’t think (DNR) should use our name in any press release… nor should we have media coverage in combination with them. If they do, then we should approve it.”
Eddie Lyback of Lyback’s Ice Fishing and Lyback’s Marine said his sole concern going forward would be getting the state to take a harder line against the tribes.
“My only focus will be to end treaty management and get the State to assert (its) right to have more control over (its) resource,” Lyback wrote. “Everything about this needs to be exposed to the public from here on out.”
The Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet publicly from 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday at Garrison City Hall, 27069 Central St., Garrison.