The Department of Natural Resources is making changes on Mille Lacs Lake in hopes of rebuilding the sagging walleye population and improving its relationship with neighbors of the central Minnesota lake.
A new strategy the DNR announced Thursday includes a new fishery on Mille Lacs with staff devoted exclusively to that lake; a pilot program to stock the lake with walleye beginning next spring, if needed; and an advisory committee with input from local officials, businesses, and anglers.
Mille Lacs has historically been the most popular place for Minnesota anglers to catch the state fish. But with the lake's walleye numbers at their lowest level in decades, the DNR set its tightest-ever restrictions on Mille Lacs walleye.
When anglers reached the season's limit, the DNR shut down walleye fishing on the lake early this month – putting a dent in the revenue of resorts and other businesses in the area.
The DNR says plenty of new walleye are hatching in Mille Lacs. The problem is that most of them don't live to adulthood.
Because natural spawning is abundant, the agency says a stocking program is not necessary right now. But it "...wants to be ready to go if and when such stocking becomes necessary."
Thursday's announcement describes next spring's stocking as a pilot effort. But according to the Pioneer Press, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr says it could involve 17 million to 20 million freshly hatched walleye fry, which the newspaper calls massive.
The walleye in Mille Lacs are genetically distinct from those in other lakes. The DNR says it will ask the 2016 Legislature for money to build a fish hatchery specifically for the lake.
It's also applying to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for permits to kill cormorants, a bird that preys on young walleye.
MPR News reports Landwehr acknowledged the DNR has lost credibility with people in the Mille Lacs area and he hopes the initiatives announced Thursday will help repair that.
The DNR says Landwehr will appoint the new advisory committee in September. Some of the community members will also sit in on the technical meetings where walleye quotas are set.
Plans call for the new fisheries office to include meeting rooms and educational displays to encourage visitors.
Landwehr tells MPR:
"By engaging more fully with people, providing information, having a facility right there in the community and also by including them in some of the technical discussions that are going on ... I'm hoping that will help rebuild those relationships."