ISLE, Minn. — A four-hour meeting of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee was one of the most tense in the group’s eight-month history, with friction between members and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff.
Although it was unclear if the desire was unanimous among the committee, several members said they wanted a guarantee from state government leaders that there would not be a repeat this year of the economically devastating early closure of the walleye season last August. Another issue of division between the committee members and the DNR centered on whether the committee should tackle more of the social and economic consequences of the Mille Lacs walleye crisis or remain focused on just the walleye population issue itself.
The soul-searching occurred Monday night at McQuoids’s Inn in Isle, the same place the committee gathered for its inaugural meeting in October.
The DNR has said repeatedly that their data indicates a drastic decline in the vitality of the walleye population, with a lack of walleye of spawning age. However, Tina Chapman of Chapman’s Mille Lacs Resort & Guide Service questioned that premise.
“If the lake is in crisis, that’s one thing,” Chapman said. “But from everything we’ve seen, the lake isn’t in crisis.”
DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira took issue with Chapman’s assertion.
“We have a disagreement about what we think the state of the fishery is,” Pereira said.
Although it could be worthwhile to get other state agencies involved in the Mille Lacs issue generally, it would distract from the committee’s activities if they were brought into meetings like committee members wanted, Pereira said.
“We don’t want to dilute what this committee is charged to do,” he said.
Bill Eno of Twin Pines Resort wanted DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr or Gov. Mark Dayton to make a guarantee that the state wouldn’t close the lake even if state anglers surpassed the harvest limits negotiated with the American Indian tribes whose members fish on the lake.
If the committee focuses just on the walleye, then it’s merely a “partial” tackling of the program that overlooks the social and economic consequences, Eno said.
Chapman also wanted a no-closure guarantee, and she and Eno said their businesses were suffering. DNR regulations mandate catch-and-release only for the lake.
“I am worried for tomorrow,” Chapman said of her business. “Our guide service is non-existent.”
Dean Hanson of Agate Bay Resort said he was disheartened at the disagreement.
“I’m a little disappointed in the way (the meeting) has started so far,” Hanson said.
DNR facilitator Katie Clower has run nearly every meeting of the committee so far.
However, in arguably the tensest moment during the entire meeting, Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering suggested replacing her with a “chairman” elected from the committee members.
“At the last meeting, when I brought up a point about netting, it almost felt like you were shutting me down,” he told Clower as the rest of the committee looked on. “And, tonight it almost felt like you were kind of (saying) ‘We’re not going to talk about that.’ That’s the feeling that I get.”
“I’ll remind you that the commissioner called me–and I wouldn’t say ‘begged’, but he asked me several times–and I was not going to be on (the committee). When I’m on (the committee), I’m going to speak, and say what I want to say. Nobody’s going to shut me down. I’m an elected official, I can say what I want to say.”
Clower immediately apologized.
Jamie Edwards of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said he hoped for a “less divisive approach” for the committee moving forward.
“Being the only tribal representative (on the committee), it’s tough,” he said. “Tough crowd.”
It took slightly less than an hour before the committee got down to the main agenda item: a discussion with biologists from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
After months of members criticizing the way local American Indians fish on Mille Lacs Lake and their alleged impact on the walleye population there, it was a breakthrough for the committee as it met face to face with biologists from Great Lakes Indian Commission, the body that represents American Indian fishing interests when the harvest limits are negotiated with the DNR.
Joe Dan Rose, Mark Luehring and Ben Michaels of the commission gave an explanation to fisheries advisory committee members of what the commission is and how it regulates fishing by tribal members.
While each tribe’s individual DNR-style agency manages natural resources independently, the commission is a consortium between tribal governments that manages resources off-reservation in lands the tribes have gathering rights on, Rose said. The commission does not have the authority to dictate what the tribes themselves do.
A warden and creel data team is present at all times during tribal fishing activity and every fish harvested is counted, Michaels said. Tribal counts are themselves sometimes subject to double-checks from observers sent by the DNR.
The committee’s next meeting will take place next month.