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The portable shelters weren't supposed to be on the lake anymore. 

Conservation Officer Anthony Bremel had spotted the two structures the previous day, red geometric forms about 50 yards off-shore on Armstrong Lake. When Bremel, who works the Babbitt region, saw them still standing on MLK Day, he went to investigate. 

It wasn't just the lack of ID and shelter tags that stood out. It was the trash. 

Fishing gear, garbage, cigarette butts, beer and pop cans, even three northern pike — all frozen into the ice. Abandoned to the elements.

"It's just sickening," Bremel told Bring Me The News not long after his Jan. 17 discovery. "All that stuff just ends up in the bottom of the lake or just washed up on shore after the season's over."

The scene isn't an uncommon one. 

Every year, as March inches closer, the DNR puts out shelter removal deadline reminders, in which it has to urge anglers to simply pick up after themselves and not leave garbage behind. 2022 is no exception, with the agency in a news release calling the irresponsibly abandoned garbage "an eyesore at best and an environmental concern at the worst.”

How concerning?

"Obviously all trash is bad for lakes and rivers. Trash is trash," said John Linc Stine. "We don’t like trash in our natural environment."

Stine is the executive director of the nonprofit Freshwater, and former commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He told Bring Me The News that items typically left over from ice fishing or other human activity have the potential to harm water and aquatic ecosystems in a couple of key ways.

First there is organic matter such as human waste (which, yes does get left behind in lakes, sometimes even plastic bags as one resort owner previously told us). These natural materials break down in the water and could help lead to excess nutrients — which degrades lake quality and may result in more algae blooms, Stine said. 

(Lee Engel, a water monitoring supervisor for the MPCA, told Bring Me The News in a separate interview that fishing-related litter is "probably not going to change the chemistry of a lake” wholesale, though noted chemicals, including gasoline, could be damaging.)

Then there are materials that don't degrade or take a very long time to decompose, with plastics among the "most harmful," Stine said. 

"Plastics break down into smaller plastic pieces., microplastic beads and fragments," he said. "And when they get into the ecosystem — when they get into small fish and then larger fish — they can do damage to their bodies and to their internal systems."

The rest of the food chain suffers too, with plastic bottles or bags taking up space, strangling aquatic plants, damaging habitat and lingering in the water as a fatal trap for unsuspecting animals. 

“It is some of the most problematic waste in a lake," Stine said of plastic bags in particular, "because of how it can become kind of intermeshed in the ecological system."

Yet inevitably,  as the ice shelter removal deadlines approach, photos emerge of left-behind trash and debris at former ice shelter sites.

Enforcement is often elusive. 

The DNR said that from Dec. 1 through March 4, it has recorded 13 littering citations and 13 additional littering warnings. But the agency noted littering is "a much larger issue" than those numbers would indicate.

"It is difficult for officers to link the offense to anyone without observing the violation," the agency said..

Bremel, in the MLK Day incident, was able to track down the culprits by following snowy footprints to a nearby cabin, about 50 yards inland. He ultimately cited two men for an unattended fishing line and for burning garbage, issuing a warning for the missing tags and IDs. He also agreed to let them off with a warning for the littering if all of the garbage was picked up. (Thankfully, it was.)

"In this particular case," Bremel caveated, "I'm pretty sure had I not contacted these guys when I did, not all of this stuff would have gotten cleaned up."

The long-term impacts of this type of littering on fisheries aren't well-known, Stine said. A 2020 study found chronic exposure to microplastic fibers could caused aneurysms, gills damage and reproductive issues in fish. Another study looked at potentially increased toxicity levels in Atlantic Ocean fish linked to microplastics.

Regardless, "All degradation of the environment, of the habitat, is bad for fish," Stine said. " And all of the losses of that habitat, over time, degrades fishing quality."

And there's public perception. While the vast majority of anglers don't litter, it only takes a few incidents for an outsider's views to shift.

Said Bremel: "It can shed a negative light on all anglers if some are leaving a mess."

The fish house removal deadline for inland waters in the southern two-thirds of the state is 11:59 p.m. on Monday, March 7. In the north, it's 11:59 p.m. Monday, March 21.

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