ST. PAUL - Possibilities for alleviating both the Lake Mille Lacs walleye crisis itself and its effect on valued local resorts began to take form at the Mille Lacs Working Group's first-ever meeting Tuesday.
The group, which was appointed by Minnesota legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton, consists of lawmakers, local tourism officials, and Dayton cabinet members.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources closed the walleye season on the lake as of Monday. During the meeting, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr called the closure the "single worst action" the agency has had to take during his tenure.
Dayton is pushing for a special session of the Legislature to address Mille Lacs, but working group co-chair Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, and other legislators appeared strongly against the idea.
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said in an interview following the meeting she didn't see much support for a second 2015 special session.
"It gets to be very costly to call people back in. If we can possibly do it without that, it would be much better for everyone," she said.
Don Pereira, DNR fisheries head, said the agency is planning for a potential re-stock of the lake by taking eggs from spawning points in Mille Lacs, raising them at an offsite hatchery, then putting the fish back in the lake. The move would help carry the fry through a vulnerable time period during which their populations are devastated by predation from older walleye and other fish.
Pereira mentioned the Brainerd hatchery as a possible incubator but said the DNR is still researching its options.
The DNR is concerned about preserving the unique gene pool of Mille Lacs walleye, which Pereira said could be diluted if too many non-native walleye intermingle with the ailing native Mille Lacs population.
Other suggestions included culling black cormorants on Spirit Island in the middle of Mille Lacs that prey on walleye. However, Pereira said the population falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, making the idea difficult to carry out.
Climate change's effect on lake temperatures poses a long-term risk to the population in that rising temperatures deprive fish of deep-water cold refuge. Pereira called the outlook over the next several decades "quite grim."
Resort economy fuels worries
Officials from the Department of Employment and Economic Development suggested helping impacted resorts via local property tax breaks given by counties. The state could then pay the counties for the tax break from its general fund.
However, Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, a former county commissioner, said the idea would put too much of an administrative burden on counties. He was in favor of direct state tax breaks instead.
He said in an interview that press coverage of the walleye issue has deterred tourism from the the Mille Lacs area by creating the false notion there's nothing left to do on the lake.
"I get an earful every day - and rightfully so - from the resort people," he said. "They point right back to headlines like, 'The lake is closed.'"
In a release Tuesday, the DNR announced it will allow anglers to sort bass that are shorter than 18 inches, and keep the largest fish - a rule change it said would help secure more bass tournaments.
Dayton planned to travel to Mille Lacs Saturday to fish, to help emphasize fish other than walleye are still available to anglers.
Lueck praised Dayton's planned visit, but jokingly worried about the governor's famous fishing inability.
"I'm praying he catches fish," he said. "We can stock his live well with some big, big bass or something."
The walleye working group was scheduled to meet again in the State Office Building in St. Paul at 10 a.m. Wednesday.