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Upper Red Lake Area Association advocates for keeping lakes clean during ice fishing season

Ice fishing season is just around the corner and the Upper Red Lake Area Association’s Keep It Clean Committee has been taking action toward addressing the growing problem of garbage and human waste left on the ice during the season.

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The Upper Red Lake Area Association’s Keep It Clean Committee has been taking action toward addressing the growing problem of garbage and human waste left on the ice during the season.
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RED LAKE — Ice fishing season is just around the corner and the Upper Red Lake Area Association’s Keep It Clean Committee has been taking action toward addressing the growing problem of garbage and human waste left on the ice during the season.

One can only guess where all the beer cans, fish guts, human waste, propane cylinders and tons of garbage go when the ice melts in the spring, making it an uphill battle against ice fishing litter as it affects the environment, summer tourism and the lake’s fishery.

In the fall of 2021, the Upper Red Lake Area Association joined the Keep It Clean Campaign. The campaign was founded 10 years ago by Mike Hirst, a resource technician with the Soil, Water and Conservation District at Lake of the Woods and Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. They saw a need to start focusing on stopping ice anglers from polluting the lake with trash and human bio-waste during the ice fishing months.

Garbage can affect the lake's water quality, conservation officer Mikeena Mattson says, as well as harm fish, birds and other aquatic life. It also frequently washes up on shore in the spring, after the ice melts.

“(The committee) began their efforts because folks up there recognized there was a tremendous amount of trash, garbage and human waste being left behind by those who enjoy the winter fishing season,” said Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association, who also helped introduce Keep It Clean to Red Lake.

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Lake of the Woods, Upper Red Lake and Mille Lacs Lake have all experienced major increases in the popularity of ice fishing in the past 15 years, which has led to a vast amount of trash and waste left on the ice each season.
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A number of popular ice fishing lakes are beginning to see the issue, too. Lake of the Woods, Upper Red Lake and Mille Lacs Lake have all experienced major increases in the popularity of ice fishing in the past 15 years, which has led to a vast amount of trash and waste left on the ice each season.

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These three lakes, along with a recent alliance with Lake Vermilion, are all part of the Keep It Clean Committee, advocating for change and hoping to form more alliances with other Minnesota lakes for the movement to gain momentum across the state.

‘It’s a dirty problem to talk about’

The Department of Natural Resources has reported that the sport of ice fishing is expanding, in part, due to the rise of outdoor recreational activities during the pandemic along with the growing popularity of “wheelhouses.”

With better technology, better equipment and recreational-style fish houses, staying on the ice for extended periods of time is more enjoyable. But this comes with a price — increased activity means more garbage and waste left on the ice.

“Fish houses that have the ability to stay out on frozen lakes for days and weeks at a time are equipped with black water holding tanks, but we do not have four-season dump stations anywhere in northern Minnesota where those people can dump their trailer toilets,” Dwight said. “It's a dirty problem to talk about, but it ends up being a huge problem for residents who end up cleaning up that trash every spring when it blows to shore.”

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Trash and debris are spotted on the Lake Bemidji ice along Diamond Point Park on May 2, 2022.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

It’s noticeable in statistics. According to a survey conducted by the DNR, a Winter Creel Survey report recorded that Upper Red Lake estimated 85,000 overnight stays by ice anglers in the 2020-2021 season — its highest number ever. And over 79,000 in the 2021-2022 season. Compared to past years, 2014-2020, where the numbers hovered around 60,000.

Unfortunately, there are no RV dump station sites in the area for winter usage, with the exception of two locations in the city of Baudette. The problems associated with dumping holding tanks in subzero temperatures make dump stations costly to build and maintain.

“It's a problem for the (Red Lake) Fishery because we don't need more phosphorus loading into lakes. Additional phosphates are hard on all the life forms in aquatic systems,” Dwight said. “We also have to worry about summer tourism, nobody wants to swim at the beach when there's a potential bag of human waste stuck in the sand.”

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The Red Lake Association's Keep It Clean Committee will implement 15-yard, lidded and labeled dumpsters with sani-liners and place them at four major resorts on the shores of Upper Red Lake solely for depositing toilet bags for the 2022-2023 season.
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The local Keep it Clean Committee responded to this problem by creating a pilot program to run during the 2022-2023 winter fishing season. They will implement 15-yard, lidded and labeled dumpsters with sani-liners and place them at four major resorts on the shores of Upper Red Lake, solely for depositing toilet bags.

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Advocating for change

Dwight and the committee are hopeful that once anglers and visitors know how, where and why their leftovers and waste must be handled and that it cannot be left on the lake, under the lake or along the shoreline, they will do a better job of removing and disposing of it the right way.

The regional Keep It Clean committee is striving to create education and awareness about this issue along with providing the resources and infrastructure to carry out their goals. While there aren’t any waste and garbage regulations specific to winter fishing in Minnesota, the team continues fighting for change through legislation.

“We need things like proper trash bins and waste bags. We need dumpsters specifically for human waste,” Dwight said. “We need more regulation that is specific to winter fishing because believe it or not, there is no legislation in Minnesota specific to the needs of people who are fishing in the wintertime.”

Dwight also said there could be a future push by Keep it Clean for a state littering law specific to frozen lakes that could be enforced during ice fishing season by state conservation officers.

“We need more eyes on fishermen that are doing the wrong thing to make sure that they change their habits,” she added.

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Trash and debris is spotted on the Lake Bemidji ice along Diamond Point Park on May 2, 2022.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

To help reduce the amount of waste left on the ice, Keep It Clean encourages ice anglers and their guests take the following steps:

  • Make a plan for trash and waste removal before you arrive. Whether you access the lake from a public or private access, plan to take off of the lake what you take on to the lake. Many access points and resorts offer garbage collection services. If your site doesn’t, make a plan to transport it home for disposal.
  • Use colored garbage bags. In snowy conditions, white trash bags can be difficult to see. Brightly colored or even black bags are easier to spot making it less likely trash will inadvertently be left behind.
  • Take a moment before you depart the ice to make sure that you have picked up any garbage in your area. And if you notice someone else has left something behind, take a moment to pick it up and bring it with you.
  • Secure your garbage before traveling. High winds, bumpy ice roads and other conditions on or off the lake can cause unsecured bags of garbage to fall out of truck beds and off of trailers and sleds without you even realizing it.
  • Make sure you have the tools you need to move or remove a fish house. Support blocks, insulation, landscaping fabric, wood and other materials need to be properly disposed of and not left behind.

“Human waste does not belong on the ice, under the ice or along our shorelines,” Dwight said. “This is a path forward to develop a really sustainable program in all lakes, not just ours.”
For more information, visit the Red Lake Association Keep It Clean website at www.upperredlakeassn.com/keep-it-clean.

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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