When eight Chippewa bands begin netting walleyes this spring on Lake Mille Lacs, they will be shooting for a record harvest -- 142,500 pounds.

That 71 tons of fish is 42 percent more than the bands' allocation only four years ago, and reflects a rising harvest by Chippewa netters since 1997, when courts affirmed the bands off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

This year, the bands' target share of walleyes would be 26 percent of the "safe harvest level" agreed to by the bands and state, meaning non-band anglers still get 74 percent, or 397,500 pounds.

But the actual band harvest the past three years has averaged 42 percent of total harvest. Last year, the bands harvested 124,000 pounds, while non-band anglers took home 271,000 pounds -- a 69-31 percent split. Twice in the past eight years the bands' actual harvest exceeded 50 percent of the total walleye take, the numbers inflated because of low overall harvest.

As the band's allotted share -- and their actual harvest -- have increased over the years, it raises several questions: How high will the bands' harvest go in the future? And if it continues to increase, at what point might fishing regulations for non-band anglers need to be tightened to prevent overharvest on the most popular walleye lake in the state?

The bands declare their intended maximum walleye harvest in five-year plans; the current one ends after 2012. Under it, the bands allocation increased from 122,500 in 2008 to a maximum of 142,500 pounds this year and in 2012. Last year, the allocation was 132,500.

"It's premature to speculate on what might be in the next five-year plan," said Jim Zorn, executive administrator for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), an agency representing 11 Chippewa bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Said Zorn: "We recognize that there are limits on the bands' harvest. Tribal harvest must stay within necessary conservation limits to ensure self-sustaining fish populations and must preserve a fair share of harvest for non-band members. The bands' five-year plans have done this."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Chippewa's favor in 1999, but the court never said how the walleye resource should be divided between the bands and non-bands. For example, it's unclear if the bands could take 50 percent or more of the walleye harvest.

"At some point, the state might challenge the amount the band is declaring," said Dirk Peterson, state Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief. "We don't know what the number is that would cause us to do that. So far, the relationship [between the state and bands] has been good. It's been friendly tension. We have a common interest in the health and well-being of the Mille Lacs fishery."

Brad Kalk, commissioner of the Mille Lacs Chippewa band natural resources department, said it would be irresponsible to try to predict future harvest levels. But he said there is growing interest in netting fish among band members.

"Over the past decade, the number of band members who net on Mille Lacs has steadily increased," he said. "There is a renewed interested in connecting with our traditional culture."

Zorn said he's uncertain whether that interest will continue to grow. "The major factors that drive band member interest are the need for fish for food and cultural purposes," he said. Fish consumption advisories, overall health of the fish population in a lake and spring weather patterns also affect where and how much tribal members net fish, he said.

Fishing regulations stable

Each year, the 1837 Treaty Fisheries Committee, comprising DNR, GLIFWC and band members, determines the safe harvest level for Mille Lacs. That was pegged at 540,000 pounds this year, down 4,000 pounds from last year. The band's allocation has been increased by 10,000 pounds, while the non-band anglers take has been reduced by 14,000 pounds.

Despite harvest fluctuations, anglers, resort owners and businesses at Lake Mille Lacs have sought consistency in walleye fishing regulations -- and they will likely get it again this year. For the fourth consecutive year, the open-water regulations likely will include an 18- to 28-inch protected slot, with one trophy over 28 inches allowed in a four-fish bag limit.

"We're looking at the same walleye regulations as last year, including the same mid-season change, if we can do that," said Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries manager. On July 15, the slot would be expanded to 20 to 28 inches, allowing anglers the potential to keep more fish. DNR officials still must OK the 2011 regulations.

As for the future, the bands' next five-year plan "is certainly a big unknown," said Pat Schmalz, 1837 Treaty biologist for the DNR. "We think the 18-28-inch reg is pretty flexible, and even if the tribal allocation gets a little bit higher than it is now, we can utilize it."

Some are still concerned. Steve Fellegy is a longtime Mille Lacs fishing guides who deliberately violated fishing laws last year to raise a court challenge to what he says are unequal hunting and fishing rights between Chippewa and non-Indians. He says when the bands first filed their initial lawsuits in the 1990s, they asked for relatively few fish a year.

"Here we are at 65 tons in spring 2010," he said. "I have grave concerns about what the future brings, based on the past."

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com