Major fish-poaching scheme busted in northern Minnesota, authorities say

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2013 - 12:51 AM

Ten men indicted in scheme involving buying and selling of fish.

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Tainted catch: Walleyes netted on the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations had been caught and sold illegally since 2009, according to court filings.

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A major fish poaching scheme involving the buying and selling of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of walleyes netted from some of northern Minnesota’s most popular lakes has been busted, authorities said Wednesday.

Ten men from northern Minnesota have been indicted for allegedly netting walleyes and other fish from lakes on the Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian reservations and selling them in violation of federal, state and tribal law.

The illegal activity allegedly has occurred since 2009 and was widespread. An unknown number of other people also face state and tribal charges, authorities said. Among the lakes where fish were netted and then sold were Leech, Cass, Winnibigoshish, Red and Six Mile, according to indictments Tuesday in Minneapolis.

“It’s a very big deal,’’ said Jim Konrad, enforcement director for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It’s illegal activity that has significant effects not only on state resources, but tribal resources.’’

The charges alone, which were investigated by the DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Leech Lake and Red Lake bands, may not curtail the illegal activity, Konrad said.

“Nothing will end it until people stop buying fish [illegally],’’ he said. “If the demand doesn’t end, it will continue.’’

A bar owner in Bagley and a restaurant owner in Bena are among those who allegedly bought walleyes.

The charges recall similar poaching allegations dating to the early 1990s that led to the collapse of the walleye fishery on the 212,000-acre Upper and Lower Red Lake. Walleyes from Red Lake were routinely sold as far south as the Twin Cities.

The lake’s walleye fishery has since been restored by the DNR and the Red Lake band.

Konrad declined to comment further, saying that the DNR would hold a news conference Monday in St. Paul.

Lenny Fineday, legal director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said the number of people involved is large.

“Between 15 and 20 individuals will likely be issued tribal citations,’’ he said. Those people are either members of the Leech Lake Band or other bands.

Those convicted face fines and possible revocation of hunting, fishing and gathering rights, he said.

“Under the band’s conservation code, the act of netting was not illegal,’’ Fineday emphasized. “Band members have every right to net for sustenance fishing. It was the act of selling the fish that was illegal.’’

Rumors for years

Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, who guides on many of the lakes, said rumors have been flying for years that band members were netting fish and selling them.

“I take my hat off to the DNR and federal government for doing something about it,’’ he said.

“We’re all stewards of the water, whether Native American or white, and if we don’t take care of this, we won’t have it. We saw what happened on Red Lake.’’

  • related content

  • Walleye sting: A northern Minnesota undercover operation that took years resulted in indictments against 10 suspects, including a bar owner and restaurant owner who bought illegal fish.

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