- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Gov. Mark Dayton started laying the groundwork Wednesday to call a potential special session to provide emergency relief to a Mille Lacs Lake area bracing for an abrupt end to its walleye fishing season - perhaps as soon as the end of next week, Dayton said.

Resorts and other businesses around Mille Lacs Lake thrive off anglers traveling to the state’s marquee destination for walleye fishing. But state officials say they may have to end the lake’s walleye season in early August - they’re on track to surpass the lake’s harvest quota for the fish Aug. 3.

Dayton met with Mille Lacs tourism officials for more than an hour Wednesday afternoon and scheduled a trip to the lake Friday. Lawmakers started to assemble a working group charged with hashing out the scope and size of a relief package that may include zero interest loans and help refinancing existing loans, property tax abatements and advertising dollars. Dayton spoke Tuesday with legislative leaders, who signaled they’re open to a special session.

The Democratic governor said cobbling together a relief package may not be possible by the Aug. 7 date he hopes for, but stressed that he and lawmakers need to act fast.

“I’d like to do it as soon as possible,” he said.

State officials have slashed walleye harvest quotas as the fish population on Mille Lacs Lake has dwindled to a 30-year low - for reasons that the Department of Natural Resources hasn’t quite figured out. A 500,000-pound quota from 2012 fell to 40,000 pounds this year, Dayton said.

“What the DNR is doing isn’t working,” Tina Chapman, executive director of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council and a resort owner on the lake, said after meeting with Dayton. “We need to make some changes to fix the health of the lake.”

The governor defended the need to step in with relief for one small industry. He compared the situation to Leech Lake more than a decade ago, where many businesses closed amid a precipitous drop in the lake’s walleye population.

“I’m not willing to give up on either the lake or the businesses who depend upon the lake for their livelihood until we’ve made every effort,” Dayton said of Mille Lacs.

In a statement, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt signaled he’s open to the special session, calling the potential of a shortened season “very concerning” and vowing to discuss possible solutions in a working group of lawmakers expected to begin working next week.

Up for debate in the special session legwork is whether lawmakers should mandate restocking Mille Lacs, as they did at Leech Lake. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said the discussion over how to restore the lake’s walleye population can wait - restocking wouldn’t take place until next spring, and it’s a years-long process.

“This is not going to be an immediate turnaround, but I think we owe it to the businesses there, we owe it to the state of Minnesota itself to make every effort to turn that lake around,” Dayton said.

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