Improving Mille Lacs Lake's walleye fishery as expediently as possible with as little negative impact to the local community as possible is the state's primary goal.
The situation will not turn around for several years. It will take time as well as careful management, monitoring and analysis for enough smaller walleyes to grow into the larger walleyes that anglers prefer to catch and that can contribute to future reproduction.
Even so, Mille Lacs remains a quality sport fishery. In addition to high numbers of large walleye, excellent quality fishing exists for northern pike, smallmouth bass and muskellunge.
Time and experience have proven that Mille Lacs is a resilient multi-species fishery for the anglers of Minnesota and tourists beyond our borders. A combination of regulations friendly to small walleye and cooperation among all users now will build and enhance the long-term sustainability of the fishery.
Walleye anglers on Mille Lacs Lake likely will see regulations similar to last year when the season opens on Saturday, May 10, based on the safe harvest level recently announced.
The 2014 walleye safe harvest level is 60,000 pounds. Of this amount, 42,900 pounds is allocated to the state and 17,100 pounds is allocated to the eight Chippewa bands with 1837 Treaty harvest rights. These allocation amounts were recently agreed upon at a meeting of DNR and tribal natural resource leaders.
A limited harvest under the existing restrictive harvest slot, combined with potential additional more restrictive regulations, will provide the needed protection to the lake's struggling walleye population.
The conservative allocations the lowest since cooperative treaty management of the lake began in 1997 reflect biologists' deep concern about the lake's recent inability to produce large crops of young walleye, despite adequate spawning stock and excellent production of young-of-the-year, fingerling-sized fish.
The Mille Lacs safe harvest level has ranged from a high of 600,000 pounds in 2006 to this year's low of 60,000 pounds. Actual harvests, however, have been very low in some previous years. In 2003, for example, state anglers took only 66,492 pounds of walleye and similar situations occurred in 2004 and 2008.
Unprecedented change is occurring at Lake Mille Lacs and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking unprecedented actions to address it.
The agency will convene a blue-ribbon panel of national fisheries experts to review past and current management practices as part of a new effort to increase the legendary lake's walleye population as quickly as possible with minimal impact to the local community.
"We will have nationally recognized fisheries experts review our work and offer recommendations," said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief. "We want the lake back on track. This is one strategy to do that."
Panel members are Drs. Jim Bence and Travis Brended, Quantitative Fisheries Center at Michigan State University; Dr. Paul Venturelli, University of Minnesota; Dr. Nigel Lester, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the University of Toronto; and Dr. Lars Rudstam, Cornell University and Oneida Lake Field Station.
Pereira said the agency is also contracting with an internationally recognized fisheries expert at Canada's Simon Frazer University to do an intensive review of the state's fish tagging and fishing population estimates. These reviews, combined with a new predator diet study to determine impacts on small walleye survival and fishing regulations that aim to protect young walleye, are all part of a systematic approach to improve walleye fishing.
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The aquatic system is undergoing significant change, including a declining walleye population. The vast majority of walleye that hatch do not survive to their second autumn in the lake. The DNR is initiating unprecedented actions in response to this unprecedented change. The agency wants to increase the walleye population as quickly as possible with minimal impact to the local community.
While state and tribal fisheries management has played a role in the decline, the persistent problem of promising walleye year classes that disappear year after year is also linked to system change. Changes include increased water clarity that benefits sight-feeding fish; the introduction of zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and spiny water fleas; significantly higher populations of smallmouth bass and northern pike that may prey on walleye; a changing zooplankton community that may be altering the aquatic food chain; and declines in certain forage species, including tullibee.
As part of a multi-pronged approach, the DNR will convene a blue-ribbon panel of national fisheries experts to review past and current management practices. These experts will review the DNR's work and offer recommendations. The agency will also contract nationally recognized fisheries expertise to do an intensive review the state?s fish tagging and fish population estimates. These reviews, plus new and more intensive field studies, are part of a systematic approach to improve walleye fishing.
The agency will continue to implement regulations that protect young walleye. The lake has not produced a strong year class since 2008. That year class and upcoming year classes need to be protected to ensure there is adequate spawning stock in the future. Currently, there is adequate spawning stock, more than enough egg production and abundant fry production.
Details still are being finalized but DNR will explore new and innovative ways to engage citizen input on future management decisions; consider any feasible methods to manage aquatic invasive species; continue discussion and cooperation with tribal natural resource managers; and support a new Mille Lacs tourism marketing initiative with Explore Minnesota Tourism.