MINNEAPOLIS — The Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa plans to exercise its rights under an 1854 treaty to spear walleyes on several northeastern Minnesota lakes this spring.
The tribe announced the plan on its website this week. Secretary-Treasurer Ferdinand Martineau Jr. said Friday that the tribe is working with the state to determine which lakes to fish and set harvest quotas. He said tribe members will stick to smaller lakes in the treaty area, which covers most of northeastern Minnesota. He said they won't spearfish on popular larger lakes such as Vermilion and Saganaga.
Around 70 to 80 members have expressed interest in spearing this spring, Martineau said. One reason is the sharply lower quota this year on Lake Mille Lacs, where Fond du Lac members have speared and netted in past years under an 1837 treaty. But he said another reason is that the 1854 treaty area is closer to home for the tribe, which is based in Cloquet.
"They obviously have their rights, and we don't have the authority to stop it," said Don Pereira, fisheries chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He said his staff is just beginning a dialogue with the tribe on its plans and will try to resolve any concerns once they see the proposed harvest levels.
There were angry confrontations when Wisconsin Chippewa bands asserted their spearing rights in the late 1980s. But spearing and netting on Mille Lacs resumed peacefully after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 upheld the rights of eight bands in the 1837 treaty area, which covers parts of east-central Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.
Martineau said he's not sure how much opposition his band's decision to start spearing in northeastern Minnesota will generate.
"I expect that some people will be upset," Martineau said. "But we expected that when we went into the 1837 area and started spearing and netting down there. It was nowhere near as bad as people expected. I'm hoping cooler heads will prevail and state anglers will understand this is a right that we have."
The Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands ceded their lands to the United States under the 1854 treaty. A federal court ruled in 1996 that the tribes' harvest rights remained in force in the ceded area, but the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands agreed not to spear there under a 1988 deal with the state.
The Fond du Lac Band's plan is to spearfish on no more than two lakes per night, Martineau said, and if members reach the 90 percent of a lake's harvest quota, they won't spear on it again the following year. He said tribal biologists have collected extensive data on walleye populations in the lakes where members might fish, and the tribe plans to take a conservative approach to avoid depleting them.
"We want to kind of start small and then as we go along we'll figure out where the best lakes are to spear. Spearing is not that easy if the lakes are dirty, if the water is not clear," he said.
Pereira cautioned against projecting what might happen in northeastern Minnesota lakes based on what has happened on Mille Lacs, where the walleye population has been declining for several years. While some critics have blamed tribal spearing and netting, the DNR says the main problem there is poor survival among young walleyes for reasons that aren't well understood. Pereira said Mille Lacs is a complex fishery that began underdoing ecological changes even before tribal fishing resumed.
"It's not a productive comparison to make," he said.
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