Red Lake Band plans limited commercial walleye harvest

It won't be like the old days, but the Red Lake Band of Chippewa plans to resume limited commercial netting this summer on tribal waters of Lower and Upper Red lakes.

It won't be like the old days, but the Red Lake Band of Chippewa plans to resume limited commercial netting this summer on tribal waters of Lower and Upper Red lakes.

According to Pat Brown, tribal fisheries biologist for the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources, the band is implementing the netting program as a way to bring the tribe's walleye harvest closer to the annual quota.

Since fishing resumed on state and tribal waters in 2006, the Red Lake Band has limited its commercial take to hook-and-line. But the harvest, Brown said, hasn't been anywhere close to the quota.

Last year, for example, tribal anglers harvested about 400,000 pounds of walleye, Brown said, less than half the annual quota of 820,000 pounds.

That's not enough to keep the band's fishery plant in Redby, Minn., running at full capacity.


"We've been kicking it around for two or three years, but the tribal council, they saw (the numbers) and said, 'We've got to do something,'" Brown said. "Even if we don't do it, let's get things going and in the works so we can. There's still some reluctance to go this route, but we've got a fishery down here that we've got to try to supply."


Members of the Red Lake Band haven't been able to legally net walleyes since 1998, when the tribal council banned commercial fishing. The state halted fishing in Minnesota waters in 1999. That set the stage for a historic recovery agreement between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the tribe.

As part of that agreement, which included three massive stocking campaigns beginning in 1999, walleye fishing was closed until populations recovered. Each stocking cost about $68,000, with the band funding $40,000 and the Minnesota DNR covering the remaining $28,000.

The turnaround happened faster than managers on both sides of the lake could have imagined, and fishing resumed in 2006.

That first year, band members fished only for subsistence; the commercial fishery reopened in 2007.

Anglers supplying walleyes for the fishery are limited to 75 fish per day and may turn in only fish measuring 13 inches to 20 inches, Brown said. While fishing is hook-and-line only, members can use an unlimited number of lines.

Tribal members fishing for subsistence face a 10-fish limit and must release all walleyes from 20 to 28 inches.


According to Brown, the hook-and-line commercial fishing will continue. But to offset the catch during times of year when fishing is slower, Brown said the fishery will hire two or three netting crews, with two or three employees in each crew, to supplement the catch.

"We want tribal members first and foremost to continue to fish and turn in fish for profit," Brown said. "If tribal members can get enough fish hook-and-line, and it doesn't look like we need to do this supplemental fishing, we probably won't."

The netting crews will use 3½-inch mesh gill nets designed to target 14- to 18-inch walleyes, Brown said. Wardens, fisheries managers and fish plant officials will know where the nets are located, Brown said.

That's a marked change from the old policy, in which any band member older than 18 could register with the fishery to set as many as eight nets.

"The biggest concern is to make sure we keep control of this thing," Brown said. "Many of the guys on the tribal council were commercial fishermen. They know it got out of control in the past, and we know we can't let it happen again. That's why we're being so cautious."

Brown said Red Lake's walleye population is in excellent shape, with six to eight strong year-classes of walleyes, compared with only two year-classes 10 years ago and three or four in the 1980s.


News of the tribe's netting plan has generated numerous reactions on Internet fishing boards, some of them poorly informed, others downright toxic.


Kelly Petrowske of Waskish, Minn., moderates a Red Lake fishing forum on the Internet Web site A third-generation family member on Upper Red, Petrowske saw firsthand the fallout from the walleye collapse.

But despite some of the posts he's read online, Petrowske says he's not concerned about the band's decision.

The key, he said, is to prevent the bootlegging of black-market walleyes that played such a significant role in the original demise of Red Lake's fish population.

"My feeling is, if it's able to be allowable take, it won't hurt the lake," Petrowske, 54, said. "Hopefully, people statewide realize that if somebody's selling fish (illegally), it's coming from Upper Red or Lower Red.

"Other than that, they're trying to make a living, too. It's their nation, their decision.

"Keep the communication open and I don't see any problems."

Officials from the Minnesota DNR say they support what the band is doing and are confident harvest levels will be contained.

"We're very respectful of the Red Lake people and government," said Mike Carroll, regional director of the DNR in Bemidji. "They're sovereign, and we need to be respectful of that."


In a perfect world, Carroll said the DNR prefers lakes be managed for recreational fishing, but added the tribe is committed to doing things right, including plans to implement a Turn In Poachers program to curtail black-market fishing.

Red Lake, at 260,000 acres, actually is two basins. All of Lower Red's 152,000 acres and 60,000 acres of Upper Red lie within the boundaries of the Red Lake Indian Reservation; the state manages 48,000 acres on the east side of Upper Red Lake.

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