Mille Lacs Band says it will suspend net walleye fishing

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota Indian tribe said Friday it would halt netting of walleye on Lake Mille Lacs for a year amid an effort to reduce the strain on one of the state’s premier fisheries, an announcement made as Gov. Mark Dayton traveled to the resort area to discuss rescue plans.

Dayton got a standing ovation when he announced the voluntary hiatus by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe during a town hall meeting in Isle. He held the forum session as he builds the foundation for a possible special session to aid resorts and other businesses that will suffer when the Department of Natural Resources closes the lake’s walleye fishing season early.

Band chief executive Melanie Benjamin said in a letter to tribal members that the suspension would last through the end of the 2016 spring season “until the health of the walleye can be evaluated.” Ceremonial netting will still be conducted, the letter said.

She said she informed Dayton that it would be “a tremendous sacrifice for the Band” during a phone call just before he took the stage at his town hall.

Area tensions have run high over the tribe’s walleye netting even though the fish population has dwindled for a variety of reasons. As of early July, surveys found that Mille Lacs was within 3,000 pounds of reaching the annual harvest limit set by the DNR.

An early end to the walleye season could be dire to area resorts that depend on fishing expeditions to stay afloat. Dayton has said a state decision to end the season as early as next week could be grounds for an assistance package, which would require legislative approval.

“Closing Lake Mille Lacs to walleye fishing is like closing Target Field to baseball games,” he said to reporters in St. Paul. “It’s so fundamental to the lake, to the reputation of the lake, to the economy of the lake. I view it as a catastrophe like the avian influenza epidemic, where people whose entire livelihoods have been suddenly destroyed.”

Dayton said he hopes a working group of lawmakers can decide on a package for business aid and fish stocking of the lake so he can order the special session in early August.

 

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