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Retiring DNR manager leaves most robust Lake Superior fishery in his wake

Don Schreiner

When Don Schreiner became Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1989, the fishery was in tough shape. Lake trout populations were low, decimated by lamprey and commercial overharvest. Steelhead numbers were far below those of previous decades.

Pressured by anglers hungry for something to catch, previous fisheries managers in Minnesota — and other states — had experimented by stocking Kamloops rainbow trout, chinook salmon, coho salmon and Atlantic salmon in the lake. Smelt were declining.

It was a tumultuous time. Anglers were largely unsatisfied. The DNR had no fisheries management plan in place for the lake and no coherent strategy for its management.

“When I came here, the DNR had no credibility,” Schreiner said.

After 25 years, Schreiner retired Friday, with the big lake and its Minnesota tributaries in much better shape than when he arrived, most agree.

Lake trout have rebounded, thanks to stocking and lamprey control. Lake herring have come back. Steelhead fishing is much improved. Salmon stocking, after a variety of stocking strategies, failed, but anglers still are catching chinooks and cohos produced naturally in the streams of other states or provinces. The Kamloops rainbow trout program serves a small but locally important group of shore anglers near Duluth.

“People are accepting that what we’ve got is about what the system can give us,” said Duluth’s David Zentner, a member of the Izaak Walton League and part of an advisory team Schreiner formed early on to work through fisheries issues. “We should be pleased with the beautiful fish we have.”

Almost from the beginning, Schreiner began involving user groups in the decision-making process. That resulted in the first steelhead management plan and, in 1995, the first Lake Superior Fisheries Management Plan. It was a contentious process, but it worked.

“It was good for the user groups and good for us,” said Schreiner, 59. “People were coming to us asking for differing things. There was no way the DNR or the resource could provide for the desires everyone had.”

Some of those early meetings grew heated, as anglers and angling groups lobbied for their interests. Some wanted more chinook salmon. Some wanted a stronger Kamloops program. Some favored naturalized steelhead over the stocked Kamloops rainbows. Still others wanted more Atlantic salmon.

“One thing about Don I’ve always admired — it always seemed even though there was a great division in the discussion around the table, especially coming up with the Lake Superior Management Plan, he kept things civil. He usually got people to the middle ground,” said Kevin Bovee, secretary of the Lake Superior Steelhead Association.

“He’s done a great job,” said John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited. “It’s a difficult job given all the passion and divergent opinion on Lake Superior management. He really championed the science … I don’t know how they’re going to replace him.”

The rebound of the Lake Superior fishery is a dramatic story. Ninety percent of the lake trout caught in Minnesota now are naturally produced rather than stocked, Schreiner said. Steelhead catch rates (in North Shore streams) are five times higher than in 1990, largely thanks to a catch-and-release-only regulation that anglers continue to support. In parts of Minnesota’s waters, limited commercial fishing for lake trout has been re-established.

“It’s a huge success story,” Schreiner said. “I think people take it for granted, but if you go around the U.S. and Europe, Lake Superior is the shining star where rehabilitation has occurred.”

Anglers have come to accept that Lake Superior will never be a Lake Michigan, where warmer waters and richer forage supports a more robust fishery.

“We’re pretty much at carrying capacity,” Schreiner said. “We have about as many predators as we can support for the prey we have out there now.”

Schreiner disclosed no specific plans for his retirement, but said he hopes to stay involved in fisheries work on some level. The Minnesota DNR has not yet named his replacement.