Investigation determines fishing, disposal both legal within treaty rights
Conservation officials conducted an investigation into four piles of fish filleted and discarded in large numbers on the shores of Mille Lacs Lake’s Wigwam Bay.
A joint exploration of the issue Thursday, May 2, by state and tribal authorities determined the harvest and disposal were legal, as defined by treaty rights and the co-management plan for the lake.
“I understand there’s a treaty and they’re allowed to net, but to have that just sitting out there, it was just appalling,” said Gary Rambousek, who discovered the gut piles sitting by the water, near the junction of Highway 169 and Virgo Road, just south of Garrison. “I’m a big fisherman and I could not believe my eyes. I just could not believe it.”
In his estimation, the four piles account for roughly 300 gutted fish or more, mostly walleye with a couple northern pike in the mix. Rambousek, who lives in the area, first discovered two piles about 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. When he later returned Thursday, two more had joined the first two.
“Shame on the DNR, and shame on the state of Minnesota,” Rambousek said. “This is just wasteful.”
Both Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe officials confirmed a Mille Lacs Band member or members harvested the fish with nets, filleted them and disposed of them on private property, which is within treaty rights.
Robert Gorecki, the Minnesota DNR area enforcement supervisor for the Mille Lacs Lake district, noted the band member said he piled the fish on his property by the water to feed eagles and other animals. Gorecki noted it wasn’t determined if the piles represent one person’s fishing activities, or if multiple people were involved.
“It’s resolved at this point,” Gorecki said of the agency’s investigation into the issue. “(The fish) were legally obtained, they were on the reservation and it is a treaty regulated activity. I’d prefer he didn’t dump them there, but he’s within his private property rights, too.”
Bradley E. Harrington, the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stated via email the band supports its members exercising their rights. Band officials noted it’s likely the piles are the result of more than one person, as the average net catches far fewer than 300 fish.
“We respect the rights of our property owners to utilize their land to their own interests and we support them while exercising their rights,” Harrington wrote. “There is a natural life and death cycle of fish in the lake. The environmental factors that should be considered are more along the lines of fish house debris, gas, plastics, Styrofoam and other non-biodegradable trash continuously left on the shores and dumped into the lake.”
Harrington said using nets for fishing is a traditional practice among band members.
“This harvest level is within the parameters of co-management as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court and are within the rights of the eight Chippewa Tribes under the 1837 treaty,” Harrington stated in the email. “The tribes and the state of Minnesota jointly agreed on a 2019 safe harvest level of 150,000 pounds of walleye determined by both tribal and state biologists. That equates to 62,200 pounds to be divided between all eight Ojibwe tribes leaving 87,800 to be harvested by the state. Also by agreement, the tribes and the state are required to monitor the harvest according to our respective allocations.”
The year’s open water fishing season comes with relaxed regulations — if slightly — looming on the horizon for Mille Lacs Lake. Per the Minnesota DNR, non-band anglers will be allowed to keep one walleye between 21 and 23 inches or one walleye over 28 inches from May 11 to May 31 this year. It’s a step up from stringent catch-and-release restrictions and outright fishing bans in years past. Tribal officials also agreed to reduced catch in recent years as part of a cooperative effort to improve the fishery.
This decision, in part, stems from positive news. According to the results of the 2018 population estimate by the Minnesota DNR, the walleye population for fish 14 inches and longer numbered in the ballpark of 727,000. These estimates place the population significantly higher from estimates in 2013 and 2014, both of which hovered around 250,000 fish.