“We’ll never stop it, we all understand that,’’ Sharp said. “But I think people will take notice that we are actively engaged with the problem and are doing the best we can.’’
DNR regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes of Bemidji also believes that since 2006, when Upper and Lower Red lakes (which combined are commonly known as Red Lake) were reopened to tribal fishermen and sport anglers, the illegal selling and buying of Red Lake fish have been curtailed.
“I won’t dispute there is some of that [illegal] activity still going on,’’ Drewes said. “But I know there is a major shift in how people look at the resource, and I’m confident that our success in sustaining the fisheries of these lakes will persist.’’
Retired DNR regional enforcement supervisor Butch Dyrland isn’t so sure.
“It’s definitely having an impact on the fish,’’ Dyrland said “The problem is ongoing.’’
A three-year investigation
The recently concluded undercover investigation lasted three years and documented illegal walleyes originating from Red, Leech and Winnibigoshish lakes, as well as Cass Lake.
Each lies within the Red Lake or Leech Lake reservation.
On Red Lake, where the tribe runs a commercial fish processing plant supplied by four netting crews, individual band members are restricted to fishing by hook and line, as part of the joint DNR-tribal agreement to restore the lake’s fishery after its collapse.
But on Leech, Cass and Winnibigoshish within the Leech Lake reservation, band members can net fish for personal use.
“Nets are the biggest problem,’’ said former DNR conservation officer Mike Hruza, who retired in 2010 after being stationed in Waskish, Blackduck and Bemidji. “Once you start allowing nets to be used, the harvest increases dramatically. It’s a slippery slope.’’
Said Spaulding: “The poaching problem is directly proportional to the number of fish that can be caught. And with nets, a lot of fish can be caught.’’
Nets also sometimes are abandoned with fish caught in them.
“We used to pull nets out of Red Lake that had a ton of dead fish in them,’’ Hruza said. “The fish that came off Red illegally had to add up to millions of pounds.’’
However reservation fish are caught, individual band members aren’t allowed to sell them. But the practice continues.
“It’s an accepted cultural norm up there that people buy and sell fish,’’ Jim Konrad, the DNR’s chief enforcement officer, said when announcing the recent takedown. “We hope to change this culture. [But] until people stop buying illegal fish, the suppliers will continue to catch and sell them.’’
‘Like a different country’
Enforcement efforts on Lower and Upper Red Lakes — which are 87 percent controlled by the tribe — are complicated by the reservation’s “closed’’ status, meaning state officers can’t patrol its about 850,000 acres, including holdings at Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, on Lake of the Woods.