- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday started examining the fallout from a staggering drop in walleye at Mille Lacs Lake that prompted an unprecedented early closure of walleye fishing there this week.

There’s no shortage of problems to tackle as Mille Lacs Lake resorts and businesses brace for a financial hit - from weighing Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for a special session to provide emergency aid to those businesses, to reversing the population decline.

Mille Lacs, one of Minnesota’s “Big Six” sport-fishing lakes, is known for its walleye, the official state fish. Resort owners are preparing for cancelations - even though the lake is still a prime place for small-mouth bass, northern pike and muskie.

The newly assembled working group of lawmakers made no final call on the need for a special session in its first meeting Tuesday, though several legislators said they hoped to avoid it and extend existing aid to businesses around the lake. The group plans to continue meeting Wednesday morning.

“Hopefully we can come together and work out some solutions without calling a special session,” said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar.

Instead, lawmakers focused largely on the Department of Natural Resources’ handling of Mille Lacs Lake’s walleye. And the frustration boiling over among area resort owners and fishing guides spilled over to St. Paul.

“I am just absolutely shocked that this was shut down in the middle of the summer,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, adding the state should have kept walleye fishing open at least through Labor Day. “It just seems to me there could have been something else done.”

Many factors could be driving down the walleye population to 30-year lows, Don Pereira, the DNR’s fisheries section chief, told lawmakers. Among the reasons Pereira listed: More fish are dying after being hooked due to warmer water temperatures. Also, he said cleaner water makes it easier for predators to eat walleye. Most young walleye just aren’t surviving, he said.

Sitting inside his resort on the western shores of Mille Lacs Lake on Monday, Greg Thomas said he didn’t buy the DNR’s explanations.

Like many other resorters and fishing guides along the lake, he blames the department itself for the precipitous decline. Thomas said he thinks the department’s netting for surveys and strict size limits on what can be harvested have exacerbated the problem.

“I’ve put my life into this resort, and they’re killing this lake,” Thomas said of the wildlife officials.

Dayton said he’s concerned about the deep distrust between the Mille Lacs community and local DNR personnel. But he urged lawmakers Tuesday not to try to micromanage the department.

“The DNR, that’s the responsibility of the executive branch, the chief executive. That’s the responsibility I take,” he said. “If (lawmakers) have suggestions, for example, if they feel that stocking a fishery on the lake is desirable and the DNR moves forward with that and they are willing to provide funding for that, then that’s within the parameters that I would envision.”

Dayton said he was confident lawmakers would make progress toward an eventual financial aid package.


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