The Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee on Tuesday went over a recommendation to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources the committee made after they felt “ignored” by the DNR.
The meeting in Garrison began with a line of discussion that has been repeated between committee members and DNR officials since the committee began meeting in October. The DNR’s data says that the lake’s population of walleye is drastically low. However, the committee members dispute several aspects of DNR’s dire findings on the lake, countering that they’ve seen and heard that the “bite,” or how all fish are biting on lines, has been excellent. They say the DNR’s early closure of the season last year, and the catch-and-release-only regulations this year, have caused a decline in business for their resorts and fishing businesses.
This continual argument took on a different iteration Tuesday in that the committee, made up of business owners, anglers and local officials, had submitted a recommendation to the DNR that said the agency should consider the socioeconomic impact of their decisions.
“Fisheries are comprised not only of fish, but also the physical and biological environment in which the resource (fish) exists and people utilizing that resource,” the recommendation read. “Whenever possible—and without placing the fisheries’ survival in jeopardy—the impact of harvestable surplus levels and (proposed) laws and regulations for both the Tribe and the State MUST be considered in light of not only how they affect the individual species BUT also the users of the fisheries.”
The recommendation, organized by committee co-chair Dean Hanson, also urged the DNR to consult with MLFAC before negotiating with tribal bands on setting harvest limits for the lake. Finally, the recommendation wanted two members of MLFAC to be present as observers at the negotiations between the state and the tribes, “(i)n order to improve public trust and to provide some much-needed transparency in the process.” Hanson said about seven members met unofficially sometime between the May and June official meetings of the full body to draft the recommendation, which Hanson then circulated with the rest of the group.
The recommendation came about in part because MLFAC “felt somewhat ignored” by the DNR, Hanson said.
New creel survey results
DNR creel survey data indicated that as of June 30 state anglers had killed 6,950 of 28,600 allowed pounds, or 1,487 fish, and tribal fishing had killed 7,808 of 11,400 allowed pounds, or 2,407 fish.
Central Region Fisheries Manager Brad Parsons said while he felt comfortable with the DNR studies’ design, based on MLFAC’s input, the DNR’s creel surveys would be independently reviewed to check for accuracy.
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said a letter from DNR Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Leach was the official DNR response to the recommendation. In the letter, Leach said the DNR understood MLFAC’s desire that socioeconomic factors be included in the thought process behind regulations.
“However, economic and social factors cannot change the ecological constraints or condition of the fishery,” Leach wrote.”The current state of the walleye population in Mille Lacs allows little flexibility in harvest strategies if the goals for the fishery (e.g. maintain spawner biomass) are to be achieved.”
“This is a good example of that process working,” he said. “We do want to ensure that future recommendations … come to us after the MLFAC has time to discuss—and endorse—(them) as a group, with DNR staff available to help you in those discussions.”
Leach closed the letter by referencing the fact that the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting included a discussion over how the committee would submit recommendations going forward.
Discussion of the written back-and-forth between Hanson and Leach created a pointed verbal conversation between Hanson and Pereira at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting.
“Our best information … indicates that this population is at the lowest point that we’ve seen it, since we’ve been actively managing Mille Lacs,” Pereira said. The drastic situation meant there was little “wiggle room” for socioeconomic considerations, he said.
The DNR simply wanted to establish a formal framework for the committee to submit recommendations, Pereira said.
“I don’t think that was an insinuation that the committee was dysfunctional, we just wanted to provide a framework whereby these recommendations can be fully processed in a way that we know they’ve been fully processed.”
That wasn’t the way Hanson took Leach’s letter, and the DNR desire to create a framework for submitting recommendations. He interpreted it as implying the committee hadn’t fully considered the idea before it turned it in, and that the DNR hadn’t had a chance to discuss it and have its input included.
“I took that, almost, as a personal affront,” he said. “To me, it insinuated that we were playing games or something with the recommendation.”
However, Hanson said he didn’t want things to turn into a confrontation between MLFAC and the DNR.
“I don’t want this to be us against you,” Hanson said. “I honestly don’t think we’re miles apart in what we’re trying to do here.”
In the end, the committee never actually created a framework during Tuesday’s meeting, apparently opting to continue the informal way previous recommendations had been decided upon and submitted.