After setting out to net up to 2,500 pounds of Lake Vermilion walleye this year, the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa has decided not to fish there after all.
The northern Minnesota band had turned to Lake Vermilion for the first time after receiving a small allocation on struggling Lake Mille Lacs. But it’s now backed away at the request of the Bois Forte Band, which currently fishes on Lake Vermilion.
Bois Forte Tribal Chair Kevin Leecy announced Fond du Lac’s new decision not to net or spear during a community meeting with Bois Forte tribal members.
“Fond du Lac has the right to harvest fish in the 1854 ceded territory, and we defend their right,” he said. “But we have significant concerns about them harvesting in our back yard.”
A day after the Bois Forte Tribal Council passed a resolution urging the Fond du Lac not to issue netting and spearing permits, leaders of the three bands that have fishing rights on Lake Vermilion under the Treaty of 1854 — Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage — met with staff from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the 1854 Treaty Authority, an intertribal organization that manages off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering rights for Bois Forte and Grand Portage.
Bois Forte has been the only one of the three bands to take advantage of its fishing rights at Lake Vermilion, using canoes to harvest its reservation waters there. The fact that the Fond du Lac uses motorized equipment — and has a number of other lakes to choose from — is a point of concern, Leecy said.
The health of Lake Vermilion’s waters and wildlife is a big worry for its residents and resort owners, who rely heavily on the tourism it brings.
Jay Schelde, who owns Pike Bay Lodge and is president of the Lake Vermilion Resort Association, said the Bois Forte are widely considered to be “good neighbors.” But the possibility of additional tribal fishing by the Fond du Lac is worrisome, he said.
“They’re not part of our environmental concerns on this lake,” he said. “They’re just coming up to net.”
The lake and its resorts draw a wide variety of anglers, Schelde said, but most are in search of walleye.
The Fond du Lac said it would fish up to 2,500 pounds at Lake Vermilion this year, after being allocated a little more than 2,000 pounds at Lake Mille Lacs.
Earlier this month, with Lake Mille Lacs’ walleye levels at a 40-year low, the DNR cut its daily walleye limit to one and banned night fishing for the season.
Lake Vermilion is far from experiencing that level of decline, said Melissa Treml, fisheries research manager at the DNR. The agency didn’t determine a Lake Vermilion fishing limit for the Fond du Lac in the way it did at Lake Mille Lacs because it was the band’s first time fishing there, she said.
The Bois Forte doesn’t report its harvest at all — something that Treml said the DNR is working to change.
Fishing future unclear
The Governor’s Fishing Opener will be held on Lake Vermilion this May, and Leecy said the spotlight should be on the region’s tremendous tourism opportunities, not tribal netting.
“The opener should be a time for all of us to shine,” he said.
It’s unclear what the Fond du Lac will do next year, though.
Bois Forte Secretary Treasurer David Morrison Sr. said the three bands with fishing rights on Lake Vermilion will continue to meet about netting and spearing there.
“They want to discuss what will happen next year. We can do that,” he said. “We got input from our tribal members during Thursday’s community meeting, and we will get together with Fond du Lac and Grand Portage this summer and again in the fall. It’s workable.”
Schelde isn’t so sure.
“Next year they could say 10,000 [pounds],” he said, “and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report. Emma Nelson 952-746-3287