Researchers on Mille Lacs wonder 'where are the walleye?'

12:27 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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GARRISON, Minn. -- There are serious concerns that a well known, world class fishery is suffering through a walleye shortage right now. The DNR has put some heavy restrictions on anglers and tribal netters after discovering the population is at a 40 year low.

"I've been to every meeting there is. The walleye is what Mille Lacs Lake is all about," popular fishing guide Terry Thurmer of Terry's Boat Harbor explained. Thurmer's been catching and tracking fish on the lake for more than five decades, and he's concerned as a fisherman and a business owner. "What has happened is you have interrupted the natural reproduction on Mille Lacs Lake," he said.

The DNR is trying to get a handle on the situation. KARE 11 recently caught up with researchers as they headed on to the lake for an evening of electro fishing. "We actually charge the water with an electric current, which stuns the fish. It allows us to net them and put them in a tub of water," DNR Fisheries Expert Tom Jones said. Crews determine the sex of the fish and the length before tagging them and releasing them back into Mille Lacs. "What we are doing tonight is sampling walleye," Jones said.

The DNR had hoped to tag 20,000 fish by this point of the season and they need 10,000 tagged for a decent study. So far, thanks to the late ice-out, researchers say they'll be lucky to tag 5,000 this season.

The goal is to get a population estimate and to track which fish anglers are catching, and perhaps more importantly, which ones they are not. Jones says the male species older than four are not as abundant as they should be. He also says while reproduction is up, many of the younger fish, less than a year old, aren't surviving. Researchers want to know why; looking into whether predation, invasive species, or pressure from anglers and netters is to blame.

"We don't want to let it get away from us so we're doing things now to try to reverse this trend before it goes any further," Jones said. This year anglers can only keep two walleyes within an 18 to 20 inch slot. "Last year the safe harvest was 500,000 pounds. So it was cut in half this year," he added.

Around 71,000 pounds can be caught this year by a consortium of tribal bands, which net and spear walleye during the spring spawning season. "Those great, great grandfathers, when they negotiated the treaty, they wanted to ensure that people were able to live the Ojibwa way of life," Charlie Rasmussen with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, said.

Many around the lake believe the walleye decline can be attributed to the tribal spring netting season. Researchers with the tribe and the DNR dispute that notion, saying there are plenty of females and plenty of reproduction. Both organizations share data on a myriad of research projects done on the lake.

Rasmussen says the tribes have increased the amount of spearing they're doing this spring while dramatically decreasing the netting, limiting the overall take.

Tribal members also say they're not on the lake sport fishing; they're fishing for an entire spiritual culture that will consume the fish for the coming months. "These are walleyes that will be processed and frozen and distributed in communities," Rasmussen explained as tribal members registered their catch south of Garrison.

Between the tribes and the anglers and the DNR, there is a lot at stake. The walleye population puzzle will need to be sorted out in the next few years to turn around this world class fishery.

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