The AIS Threat to Lake Vermilion

An Important Minnesota Asset Needing Protection

Lake Vermilion is a Minnesota scenic crown jewel. The Ojibway called the lake Onamuni, “Lake of the Sunset Glow,” a testament to its beauty. The French voyageurs translated the name to the Anglo-French word Vermeillon. It is St. Louis County’s largest lake (40,000 acres). It has the longest shoreline (313 miles) and the most islands (365). Few would dispute its legendary scenery and its breathtaking sunsets.

Lake Vermilion is an important financial asset for the local business community, drawing fishermen and recreational boaters who drive the local economy. The Lake Vermilion Resort Association (LVRA) estimates their guests will spend $6.4 million for lodging in 2015. When food, recreation, and retail purchases are included, the direct impact to local businesses exceeds $20 million.

Lake Vermilion is an important financial asset for property owners and St Louis County. Its lakeshore property has an estimated market value (EMV) of $908 million, easily the largest lake valuation in northern Minnesota and 9.0% of the county’s EMV outside Duluth. Lake Vermilion property owners contribute $10.9 million net tax to St Louis County, school districts and local governments.

High Risk of AIS Introductions at Lake Vermilion

Annual Boat Launches

  • Resorts/Campgrounds – 9,800
  • Public Ramps – 8,500
  • State Park – 0
  • Total – 18,300

Being a fishery and scenic “super star” can also be a problem. On summer weekends, there’s a steady parade of trailered boats between AIS-infested lakes and Vermilion’s 16 public launch sites and 38 resort launch sites for fishing and recreational boating. Approximately 18,300 trailered boats launch at Lake Vermilion annually.

When the new Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park is fully developed, the DNR expects it to draw 250,000 visitors annually. If only 1% of those visitors bring their boats, the total launches on Lake Vermilion will significantly increase.

Will the boats launching at Lake Vermilion be clean? A 2015 DNR news release reports a 17% AIS law violation rate at enforcement check stations – not much better than the 20% they reported two years before. Without doubt, the risk of new AIS introductions via trailered boats is very high.

The Fishery and Business Community Cannot Absorb an AIS Stressor

Adding an AIS stressor to Lake Vermilion will clearly weaken the resiliency of its fishery and ecosystem. The lake’s west basin is still in the midst of a walleye population anomaly – too many large fish and too few smaller ones – a population distribution which is not fully understood. An unknown combination of events triggered this situation in the mid-2000s. The inability of the west-basin walleye fishery to absorb those triggering events or to recover quickly suggests the walleye fishery may be more vulnerable to additional stresses than we’d like.

Lake Vermilion is a Canadian Shield lake, which tend to be less fertile than lakes in the central or southern part of the state. The fisheries of less fertile lakes – those with fewer nutrients to support organisms – may be more fragile and more readily disrupted by a new AIS infestation affecting the food chain.

It’s impossible to know beforehand which stressor is one too many and is the one that begins a downward fishery and business community spiral. While every lake is different, we must learn as much as we can from the past problems at Red Lake, Leach Lake, and now Lake Mille Lacs. One of those lessons is that prevention – as hard as it is – is still a lot easier than halting a downward spiral while it’s happening.