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No early answers on Mille Lacs walleye woes

Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Chief Don Pereira comments Tuesday during a presentation to a legislative working group called to explore issues around the health of the walleye population in Mille Lacs Lake. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The walleye fishing season is over until at least Dec. 1 on Mille Lacs Lake, but the answers of what to do next proved evasive Tuesday.

The first meeting of the Legislative Working Group on Mille Lacs Lake focused on the how and why of the problem with a few rough ideas bandied about of how to financially help affected businesses in the area.

Gov. Mark Dayton hopes to call legislators back to St. Paul later this month to approve assistance that could include extra tourism promotion for the area and interest-free loans or property tax abatements for business owners affected by the walleye-fishing ban.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar), who co-chairs the working group with Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), hopes a solution can be devised without a special session, possibly even waiting until the 2016 legislative session begins in March.

Legislative Working Group on Mille Lacs Lake

“We need to figure out if there is a good way to go,” said Tomassoni.

The group is scheduled to reconvene at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Calling it “a pretty dark day for anglers and businesses” in the Mille Lacs area, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr announced Sunday that walleye fishing on one of Minnesota’s most popular lakes would cease at 10 p.m. Monday. The lake’s walleye population is the lowest measured in at least 30 years.

This year’s walleye harvest on the lake is approaching 31,000 pounds, exceeding the state’s allotment by more than 2,000 pounds. However, Mille Lacs Lake still has a number of other fish, such as smallmouth bass and northern pike, for anglers to pursue. Dayton plans to fish the 130,000-acre lake Saturday.

MORE: Read past Session Daily coverage of the Mille Lacs walleye issue

Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, said scientists do not have a firm answer for the decline in walleye population in recent years, but he noted small walleyes are struggling to survive in the lake, in part, because they are being eaten by larger fish. Warmer waters and invasive species are also potentially playing a role.

Conservative management will be needed until adequate numbers of young walleye survive, he said.

Landwehr said a strong 2013 spawning season “gives great hope” for future walleye levels.

Tomassoni suggested delaying the ban until after Labor Day, believing another month of taking more walleye wouldn’t dramatically affect the lake, and it would give the DNR more time to find a way to bring back the walleye population.

Hackbarth said if the walleye ban lasts into the ice-fishing season, businesses would go broke and shut their doors.

Bill Eno, who owns Twin Pines Resort, said a solution is needed soon. He wants to know if it is worth it financially to prepare for winter anglers.

Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) said whatever solution is developed it needs to be forgivable. “These businesses don’t need more debt."

Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, noted that creating a standalone answer, such as no-interest loans, for this area would likely require a special session.

Revenue Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly said counties can abate property taxes for reasons they deem just and reasonable, and that another solution could involve the state reimbursing affected counties with General Fund dollars. That, too, would need to be done in a special session. 

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