Updated 4:45 p.m. | Posted 12:20 p.m.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said Friday it will forego walleye netting on Mille Lacs next spring.
The surprising decision was made shortly before Gov. Mark Dayton was scheduled to hold a morning town meeting in Isle, Minn., over concerns about the lake's declining walleye population.
"It's a huge sacrifice. But you have to remember the people of Mille Lacs band, they care about the fish and the lake," Tribal Chair Melanie Benjamin said. "We want to be part of the solution in the best possible way."
Benjamin told MPR News the band decided to give up its allotment next year despite what she called "negative feelings" about the band's netting from local people, including state legislators and county officials.
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"Leech Lake went through this, Red Lake went through this. And each one of those lakes rebounded," she said. "So it's time to take care of this lake. And what we can do in steps we're going to do as well."
The band will still conduct some "ceremonial netting" next year to provide walleye for important cultural events.
The Mille Lacs area has struggled the past few years with a plummeting walleye population, tight fishing regulations and a drop in tourists.
Now the state is on the verge of possibly closing the walleye season as soon as Monday. Surveys on estimated walleye harvests, releases and kills on Mille Lacs in the first two weeks of July showed the lake was within 3,000 pounds of reaching the annual limit set by the state.
That was a dramatic drop from June 30, when surveys estimated 15,300 pounds remained.
Dayton is proposing a special session to discuss economic relief for business that rely on fishing tourism in that region.
On Friday, when he announced the band's decision at the town meeting at Isle High School, the crowd stood and applauded the news.
The overall walleye harvest on Mille Lacs was cut by about a third this year, to 40,000 pounds. That's split between sport anglers and eight Native American bands that retained fishing rights to the lake through an 1837 treaty. The state's share amounts to more than 28,000 pounds.
After the town hall, Dayton said Benjamin assured him she would try to convince the other seven bands to also give up their walleye allocation next year.
Mille Lacs has been described as the world's largest natural walleye factory. But the fish's population is at a 30-year low.
The DNR is adamant that tribal netting has not been the cause.
DNR surveys show there are plenty of young walleye. The problem is they're not surviving to become big adults. The agency suspects a complex stew of invasive species and other factors changing the lake ecosystem are to blame.
Still, frustration over tribal netting boiled over at the meeting with the governor.
"We're here because of the extremist and unacceptable workings of Mille Lacs-specific treaty fisheries management," long-time fishing guide Joe Fellegy told Dayton during Friday's meeting.
"We're not going to go into the racist rants here. I'm not going to do it. You understand?" Dayton countered.
"I am talking about state management of the program that victimizes these people," Fellegy responded.
Many resort owners and guides have sharply criticized DNR management of the walleye fishery. Despite tighter regulations they say have driven away tourists, the fishery has not rebounded.
"Our livelihood, but also our lives, our family heritages, are here. We don't want this fishery to collapse," said Karen McQuoid, owner of Macs Twin Bay Resort.
The DNR, she said, has not listened to resort owners and others with deep roots in the region.
After the meeting, Dayton promised changes.
"It's clear we need a new team here. There's zero trust, absolutely no trust, with the DNR, who is their government. When you have that kind of catastrophic breakdown, there has to be changes."
Dayton said he supports DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, but said he'd change the team managing Mille Lacs. He's open to other possibilities, including stocking the lake with walleye — something DNR scientists have said would likely not work in Mille Lacs.
He's also pushing for a special legislative session to provide economic relief to struggling business owners.
There is some hope on the lake's horizon.
A record number of walleye were born in Mille Lacs in 2013. Those fish are still too small to keep. But guide Mike Verdeja says the fishing this year has been phenomenal.
"I've seen a lot of lakes all over shut down completely by this time of the year and they're still biting here," he said. "And it's not because they're starving. These fish are fat."