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Tribes, businesses react to Mille Lacs walleye shutdown

Business owners on Mille Lacs Lake, legislators and tribal bands whose members hold fishing rights on the lake had varying reactions to news the state would shut down the walleye season after Labor Day.

Bill Eno, Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee member, gestures toward a presentation Tuesday during the committee's meeting Tuesday as fellow member Tina Chapman looks on. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
Bill Eno, Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee member, gestures toward a presentation Tuesday during the committee's meeting Tuesday as fellow member Tina Chapman looks on. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

Business owners on Mille Lacs Lake, legislators and tribal bands whose members hold fishing rights on the lake had varying reactions to news the state would shut down the walleye season after Labor Day.

DNR Fisheries chief Don Pereira announced the upcoming closure at a meeting of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee in Onamia Tuesday, after the catch-and-release season went over an established harvest limit by 16,676 pounds.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission is one of the main bodies with which the DNR negotiates the harvest limits as part of the Fisheries Technical Committee. GLIFWC spokesman Dylan Jennings said the bands would continue to investigate the biological effects of the overage, despite the state's decision to close walleye fishing.

"There was still kind of a breach in the agreement," he said.

Jennings declined to say whether the tribes' response would include a lawsuit, saying they didn't know.

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A GLIFWC written statement said the closure did "nothing to remedy the State's unwarranted breach of its commitments."

"The Bands are continuing to assess the biological ramifications of the State's failure to abide by its quota and to review their options for redress," the statement read.

A Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe spokesperson said the tribe would not be releasing a separate statement.

The DNR and tribes are scheduled to meet for the next Fisheries Technical Committee meeting Nov. 1, Pereira said.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a news release that to keep fishing going in excess of the limit could have harmed relations with the bands, if not the environment.

"Although the state's estimated overage does not pose a conservation risk to the lake's walleye population, we recognize the impact that continued fishing could have on our relationship with the bands," Landwehr said.

Although pushing the closure date until after Labor Day was designed to mitigate the financial bite on Mille Lacs businesses, the lack of walleye anglers coming up in the near future still caused dismay.

Tina Chapman of Chapman's Mille Lacs Resort & Guide Service said the advisory committee should have been informed prior to the DNR's announcement.

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"You can't drop a bomb on us like that and expect us to react," Chapman said, after a DNR facilitator asked the committee to respond to the news.

Interviewed the following day, advisory committee co-chair and Agate Bay Resort co-owner Dean Hanson was taking the closure in stride. He felt grateful that the state kept the season going as long as they did.

"Generally after Labor Day, my business is starting to slow anyway," he said. "I think the fact we were open through Labor Day is a real plus. I understand what they're saying, and I think they gauged the business community correctly."

Hanson said the closure was motivated by politics, not by walleye population woes.

"People are catching more fish than, quite honestly, I remember ever seeing before," he said. "I just don't believe the fishery is in the crisis that the bands and the DNR would like people to believe."

In their statements, Landwehr and Gov. Mark Dayton encouraged anglers to fish for other species like bass on Mille Lacs.

Minnesota Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said the change constituted Dayton going back on his word, adding she would call for an audit of the DNR's fish management in Minnesota.

Speaking later during the public comment portion of the meeting, she questioned whether co-management of the lake with American Indian bands had accomplished anything.

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Another legislator who has attended many advisory committee meetings, Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said in a statement Wednesday that said management of Mille Lacs had to be reformed to make it more proactive.

"We have been using pretty much the same lake management model for almost two decades and still find ourselves reacting, rather than creating desired outcomes," he said. "The current model attempts to balance the lakes' biology, the economic impact of the fishery and treaty agreements, but to date has only produced short term measures. We need to put the entire management mechanism back on the table and focus on creating more sustainable results."

Related Topics: FISHINGTOURISM
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