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Commercial walleye netting returns to Red Lake Reservation

By Chris Niskanen
St. Paul, Minnesota (AP) 6-09

The remarkable story of Red Lake’s walleye recovery takes another turn this summer, one that will continue to test the management and resolve of the two sovereign nations that share the lake.

The two nations are the United States (and by proxy, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which oversees a portion of Upper Red Lake) and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, which controls all of Lower Red Lake and a part of Upper Red Lake. 
This summer, the Red Lake band will begin commercial walleye netting on the lake for the first time since 1998, when the tribal council banned netting because the fishery was collapsing.

In 1999, the DNR stopped fishing in state waters of Upper Red Lake, and what followed was a massive restocking effort.

In 2006, the lake reopened to walleye fishing, far ahead of anyone’s expectations. Today, the fishery is healthy; this spring, the DNR increased the daily limit for non-band anglers.

Pat Brown, tribal fisheries biologist for the band’s Department of Natural Resources, said the band would begin netting this summer to keep the band’s fishery plant in Redby running at full capacity.

Last year, the band harvested about 400,000 pounds of walleye, but it has a quota of 820,000 pounds. The Red Lake band has relied solely on a hook-and-line commercial fishery to operate the plant, paying members $1.75 a pound.

The fish are sold on the band’s Web site and to wholesalers. Some are consumed in Twin Cities restaurants.

Currently, band members who want to fish are issued a red cooler and can catch up to 100 walleyes per day with hook and line. They’re issued a check once a week for their catch. But with high unemployment and irregular hook and line catches, “we’re looking at hiring two or three gillnetting crews during the summertime to supplement the commercial catch,” Brown said.

“The council decided that if we can bring in 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a day with gillnet crews, it will keep a core group of fish processors and cutters employed down there (at the plant).”

“People have to realize this will be very controlled netting,” Brown said, adding that nets will target small, non-breeding walleyes between 14 and 18 inches. Fish will be kept in the net until they are unloaded at the fish plant, where they will be carefully counted and weighed.

Brown said the netting would be nothing like “in the past.”

It’s the past that both sides don’t want to repeat.

Red Lake’s walleye population crashed because of uncontrolled band netting, widespread black market sales of walleyes and walleye poaching in both tribal and state waters. Today, the band and the DNR have agreed on a sustainable walleye quota for state and band waters, and careful assessment of the walleye populations.

Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji, said it makes sense the band would want to utilize more than the 53 percent of its quota.

“It’s vastly different than 10 years ago,” he said of the band’s netting plans. “Back then, people could bring their fish to the plant or not. You could have your own gillnet. Now, there is no personal netting allowed.”

Yet the black-market sales of walleyes continue to cause heartburn.

In February, during his annual address to the band, tribal chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. directly addressed the problem of black-market sales by band members. “The allure of quick cash is apparently too strong for some,” he said. The black-market fish sales “are hurting our business as well.”

He also rejected a return to full-scale commercial netting because “it would most likely be the same as what caused the collapse of the lake in the first place.”

Kelly Petrowske, a third-generation resident of Waskish, and a non-band member, was asked how anglers were responding to the band’s decision to resume limited commercial netting.

Petrowske, who moderates a Red Lake fishing forum, said he anticipated the announcement and posted the news, as well as Jourdain’s comments, on the Internet. He said some of the comments about the band were ugly and bitter.

“The thing is, the Red Lake band members read this stuff, too,” he said.

He said he wasn’t worried that band netting would cause the lake to decline. “If they keep it within the safe allowable harvest, I’m not too scared of it.”

“There is a lot of illegal fish out there,” he added. “The fish are being bootlegged all over.”

How much illegal selling has been occurring is a matter of opinion. “I don’t think it’s very large scale,” Brown said.

Drewes said there was no evidence of major operations, either. “It’s a different conservation ethic around Red Lake today,” he said, adding that enforcement is being done by state and band officers. “People are more knowledgeable about what is legal and what is not legal.”

In any black market, it takes a seller and a buyer, and Petrowske said more non-band members are likely to rat on someone buying black-market walleyes these days.

He noted, too, that “it’s usually the white people buying the fish.”

Petrowske said he had more pressing issues to worry about. The price recently dropped out of the wild rice market, so he was facing a hard decision about what to plant in his commercial wild-rice paddies.

“Barley,” he said. “And maybe wheat and soybeans.”