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Tribes considering legal options over Mille Lacs walleye quotas

A giant fiberglass walleye statue greets visitors to Garrison, Minn., on the southern shore of Mille Lacs Lake. (Dan Kraker / MPR News)

Gov. Mark Dayton's decision to keep Lake Mille Lacs open to catch-and-release walleye fishing after surpassing an agreed-upon harvest quota could lead to a lawsuit.

Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said in a Facebook post that treaty rights attorneys are assessing legal options.

This year's walleye harvest allocation was set at 40,000 pounds — 28,600 for state-licensed anglers, and 11,400 pounds for tribal fishing.

Anglers on Mille Lacs have been restricted to catch-and-release walleye fishing this season. But fish that don't survive after release count against the allocation, and the most recent harvest estimate reached nearly 38,000 pounds — almost 10,000 pounds over the state limit.

Meanwhile, tribal members did some spearing this season, but decided against gill netting walleye to stay under their allocation.

"As has been our history, the Band has kept our promise" Benjamin said in her post. "But in violation of the court order, the promise was broken on the other side. We will do whatever we must to ensure the [walleye] are protected for generations to come."

A lawsuit isn't the first option, according to Susan Klapel, the Mille Lacs Band's commissioner of natural resources.

"Obviously we're going to try reaching out to the state and coming to an agreement again," Klapel said. "There are steps to be taken, there's mediation, dispute resolution, before it actually gets to the point of a lawsuit."

When Dayton announced last week that the lake would remain open to catch-and-release fishing, he said closing the walleye fishing season "would devastate area businesses and communities." He added that the state's fisheries experts have assured him that continuing catch-and-release walleye fishing "will not negatively impact the health of the walleye fishery."

However, tribal representatives say they're not as confident about the state of the fishery. They will do their own analysis of the state's data to determine next steps, according to Dylan Jennings, a spokesperson with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"That fish as a resource to our people is invaluable, you can't put a price on it," Jennings said. "So by the state continuing to do this, it's almost like a disregard to that."

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