FDL Spears Walleye in 13 Lakes

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CLOQUET, Minn. – The Fond du Lac Band

of Lake Superior Chippewa has announced plans to spear walleye on 13

lakes in northeastern Minnesota this spring.

In what will be the first time that

tribal members spear outside reservation boundaries in the Arrowhead

region since a federal court affirmed their treaty rights were

affirmed in the 1996, about 60 band members are expected to fish.

Most will do so along the North Shore in Lake and Cook counties.

Many of the band’s 4,200 members still

depend on food they hunt and gather, said Jack Bassett, chair of the

Fond du Lac band’s ceded territory committee.

"We have many families that rely

on this every year," he said. "They get their poundage of

fish, it’s in the freezer, and they have a lot of meals out of it."

For band members, returning to the

lakes validates rights that they were long denied.

In 1854, four years before Minnesota

became a state, the Fond du Lac band, along with the Bois Forte and

Grand Portage Chippewa bands, signed a treaty with the U.S.

government. The band agreed to give up most of their territory across

the Arrowhead region. In exchange, they retained the right to hunt,

fish and gather on that land.

But those rights weren’t legally

recognized until the band reached an agreement with the state in

1988. Until then, band members could be arrested for hunting and

fishing on ceded territory.

"I remember my dad back in the

1960s, he went and shot a deer," recalled Ferdinand Martineau,

the Fond du Lac band’s secretary/treasurer. "We were having

dinner, and the game warden knocked on the door and came in and

arrested my dad, and took our dinner, and took the meat out of the

refrigerator."

It’s been a tough few years for those

who rely on subsistence foods. The band canceled its moose hunt last

year, and the deer harvest has been down. The band also did not spear

walleye last year on Mille Lacs, which is in a separate treaty area,

because of a late ice out and declining fish numbers there.

After studying walleye populations in

the 1854 treaty area for nearly two decades, Ferdinand Martineau said

this was the year to start a limited spearing season.

"If we’re going to give our band

members the opportunity to do some subsistence fishing, we’ve got to

start doing it now," he said.

Spearing will be allowed on only two

lakes per night, and the band has set harvest limits at most lakes of

20 fish per 100 acres.

All together the band intends to

harvest just under 2,000 walleye. DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira

said he doesn’t anticipate any negative effects on walleye

population.

"The fact that their harvests are

quite low indicates that the odds of a problem arising are pretty

small," he said.

Spearing has been contentious in

Wisconsin and on Lake Mille Lacs. When Ojibwe band members in

Wisconsin first began spearing in the late 1980s, they were met by

hundreds of protestors in clashes that turned violent.

Both the band and the Minnesota

Department of Natural Resources say this time will be different.

Pereira isn’t expecting a similar

response in Minnesota. Still, the DNR and Fond du Lac band plan to

have law enforcement officers on hand at the lakes when spearing

begins after ice-out.

But even if there are no protests,

non-Indian anglers are nevertheless concerned about the harvest, said

Scott VanValkenburg who owns Fisherman’s Corner in Pike Lake just

north of Duluth.

"It’s kind of a heated debate at

times," Van Valkenburg said. "Everybody’s worried about big

females getting speared."

Band members target spawning areas,

using bright lights to illuminate the shallow waters where walleye

gather at night. VanValkenburg worries that the loss of big females

— some over 20 years old — could decimate the walleye population.

"If they concentrate up in the

spawning grounds and they harvest the big fish, then that’s a big

problem," he said. "It takes a long time to recover."

But Pereira said removing some

spawning females won’t affect the overall population.

"It’s something that’s just so

counter-intuitive to the public," Pereira said. "We’ve

known forever in fisheries management it’s not how the fish are

taken, or even when, but it’s how many."

When the band reaches its harvest

limit, he said, its members will stop fishing.

To enforce the overall limit, the band

plans to have conservation officers at every boat landing. The DNR

isn’t that precise with its harvest management. It limits the number

of fish each angler can keep, but not the total number of anglers.

The band plans to begin as soon as ice

is out on the lakes, but officials say they will not spear over the

weekend of the state fishing opener on May 10.

If the ice doesn’t clear until after

the scheduled opener, it may be too late for the band to speak, Fond

du Lac fisheries biologist Brian Borkholder said.

By then, he said, there’s a good

chance walleye will have already spawned under the ice.

"To go much after the fishing

opener is probably just a waste of time and gasoline money,"

Borkholder said.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be

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