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Red Lake Walleye Fishing Ruined
By Dan Gunderson
April 15, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the Mainstreet Radio series Treaty Rights and Tribal Sovereignty

The tough regulations and enforcement on fishing at Mille Lacs, as Ojibways exercise their treaty rights, are being closely watched by the Red Lake band of Chippewa. Red Lake was once a walleye fishery as good or better than Mille Lacs. But over-harvest by native commercial fishers nearly destroyed the population; only a remnant of the world-famous Red Lake walleye remains. The result has been economic ruin and sometimes rancorous debate about who is to blame for the management debacle.

FOR 80 YEARS COMMERCIAL FISHERS have spent sunny spring days mending nets and getting boats ready for the walleye harvest. But this year, like last, there will be no commercial fishing because the Red Lake walleye has been nearly wiped out.

Pat Brown: We got two hatching batteries, about 200 jars, and you can raise about two quarts of walleye eggs in each one.
At a small fish hatchery on the shore of Lower Red Lake, water flows through large glass jars and runs down a metal sluiceway and into the lake. The glass jars are normally used to hatch walleye eggs, but they'll be empty this year. Tribal biologist Pat Brown says no walleye will be hatched because there are too few mature walleyes in the lake to harvest eggs from.

The problems at Red Lake started decades ago. The federal government opened commercial fishing in 1918 to provide food for Minnesotans during World War I. The harvest was increased during World War II, and the regulations put in place then have not changed in 55 years. Federal regulations set a maximum walleye harvest and ostensibly controlled the commercial fishing, but for decades there was little or no oversight. It was just ten years ago that the Red Lake tribe started a fish biology department. The tribe manages 85 percent of the lake; the state of Minnesota oversees the remaining 15 percent that's outside reservation boundaries. Minnesota DNR regional fisheries manager Bob Strand says Red Lake is in critical condition.

Strand: I guess what it comes down to is we can quit harvesting walleye by choice and improve the potential for recovery, or we can quit fishing walleye by no action, because they're gone.
In the late 1980s commercial fishing took nearly one million pounds of walleye a year from Red Lake - that was the legal harvest. Some contend another one million pounds were taken illegally.

Any member of the Red Lake band was free to do subsistence netting - catching fish to feed their family. Many used the freedom as it was intended, but some subsistence netters took thousands of pounds of walleye to sell on the black market. Tribal and state officials are circumspect about placing blame, but commercial fisherman and Red Lake tribal member Bill May says greed led to a declaration of war on walleye.

May: That's pretty much what it is you know, declaring war on the fish nation year after year. Everybody can see it's having an effect. We can't sit around and make like we don't.
Bill May says he can live without fishing, but he misses the hours spent on the water. He says the spiritual connection to the lake is strong. He wonders what his Anishinabe forefathers, who called the lake their storehouse, would think of what's been done
May: I know 200 years ago there wasn't no great big giant canoes out there with 20-30 nets and guys pulling nets out there. I know that wasn't there.
There will be no legal nets on Red Lake this year. In addition to the commercial fishing ban, the tribe is expected to end subsistence fishing. But some Red Lake tribal members feel strongly it's their right to fish the lake as they choose, and illegal netting is anticipated The tribe has hired additional wardens to enforce the netting ban.

Angling bag limits have also been cut. On the state-managed part of Upper Red Lake, anglers can take only two walleye.

That could be the death knell for the tiny, weather-worn community of Waskish where once there were 13 successful resorts.

Hudec's Resort was the first on Upper Red Lake, opening in 1938. Now it's the last still operating. Its rustic look is slowly fading to rundown.

Ed Hudec shows the wear from decades of hard work. He's lived all of his 80 years on the shore of Upper Red Lake - for the past 60 years he's run the resort his dad built. He seems to slip into the past as he gazes out the window at the frozen lake and recalls 10,000 anglers on the lake for opening day, pulling in a walleye with every cast.

Back then he thought his future was secure. Now he says his retirement investment is just about gone.

Hudec: ...and just about everything I ever made I put back in here, and now I can't get nothing back out of it. I probably be working here 'til the day they put me in a coffin.
Hudec says he has only a handful of reservations for the entire summer. He doubts he will open the resort next year.

Just down the road at Sunset Lodge, the news about new fishing restrictions etches the worry lines a bit deeper on the faces of Gary and Jane Bymark. Eleven years ago the Bymarks quit their jobs in the Twin Cities and put everything they had into this restaurant, bar, and campground. It was a dream business at first, but the dream, like the walleye, is gone and the Bymarks are bitter.

Gary Bymark: It's not our fault. We've got a problem, grant you, but it's not our fault the way the lake is, and why should we have to pay for it because of something the reservation did?

Jane Bymark: They talk about respect for the lake and the land and stuff, but they had zero respect for this lake and the fish in it. What are they going to do tomorrow?

The Bymarks are also angry at the state. They say little was done to stop black-market fishing. Gary says he would stand behind the bar and watch pickup trucks heaped high with walleye drive past. He says thousands of pounds of walleye were sold at his bar.
Bymark: Like when you're sitting at the bar here, and any one of them Indians come in and say we got walleye for a dollar a walleye, cleaned and everything; they're gonna buy 'em. Two or three guys would come in here and walk out with a hundred walleyes.
State and tribal officials say they tried to enforce the law. Widespread illegal netting and limited resources made it difficult.

Stopping the walleye harvest is the first step in rebuilding the population. A proposal to stock the lake with walleye from other lakes is opposed by the tribe. They say Red Lake is one of the few lakes where walleye genetics have been unaltered for hundreds of years. They want it to stay that way.

Recovery of the walleye population is not a sure thing, and biologists for the tribe say, even if all goes well, it will be at least a decade before walleyes can be harvested again.

What happens then is uncertain. Resorts on Upper Red Lake say without financial help from the state, Waskish will be a ghost town.

The Red Lake Tribe is asking for federal assistance to make up for the $1 million to $4 million-a-year commercial fishing pumped into the tribal and regional economy.

The Red Lake Tribe will likely resume commercial fishing, but there's some talk about opening the reservation water to sportfishing instead. It's estimated tourists in pursuit of the walleye would spend five times the money generated by commercial fishing. Tribal chairman Bobby Whitefeather says it's a discussion the tribe needs to have.

Whitefeather: There are some traditionalists who are real entrenched about exploiting our resource for the almighty dollar. Now that's not to say it's impossible.
Other tribal members say the lake has already been exploited for financial gain. A tourism industry would be no different. There's likely to be a heated debate about the issue over the next decade while everyone waits to see if Red Lake can again become a walleye factory.