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Fisheries - Spearing and Netting

Beginning April 1998, the Fond du Lac Band, together with the Mille Lacs Band and six Bands from Wisconsin, began exercising Treaty-reserved fishing rights in the 1837 Ceded Territory. Most notably, Fond du Lac began spearing in Mille Lacs. After three years, there still remains a lot of controversy and miscommunication surrounding this very limited harvest.

Spearing and Netting Regulated

To begin with, none of the eight Bands do anything in the 1837 Ceded Territory without first meeting with State DNR officials. With respect to the fisheries, a committee exists, the Fisheries Technical Committee, that meets twice per year. At these meetings, biologists and representatives from both the State of Minnesota, GLIFWC, Mille Lacs, and Fond du Lac get together to go over data, exchange information, and review the management of the fisheries within Mille Lacs and the other inland lakes where Band harvest takes place. Data is discussed and models are developed that are used to predict the current status of the walleye fishery within Mille Lacs and the other lakes. With these models, both the State and Tribes agree on allowable safe harvest levels (quotas) for each lake, not only for walleye, but for northern pike, yellow perch, burbot, and tullibee.

After meeting with the State and agreeing upon safe harvest levels (quotas), the eight Bands make their declarations to the State on their intended harvest for the upcoming fishing season. These declarations are made to the State of Minnesota by 15 March. Bands can not declare more than 50% of the allowable harvest for each lake. The State then must look at the models and adjust length limits and creel limits, if necessary, so that State anglers stay within the quota and not over-harvest walleye or other species on any lake.

As soon as the ice leaves the lakes, Band Members take to the water. With spears and gill nets, they participate in a cultural activity. It’s not that easy, however. No harvest activity can occur without the Bands first calling the State before noon, and opening a lake for that evening. In addition, the Bands must inform the State which landing(s) will be used by Tribal fishermen, declare how many permits will be available for that night’s activity, and assign a creel limit for each permit. The courts ruled that Tribal spear fishermen are limited to only 2 (two) walleye per permit larger than 20.0 inches, of which only one of those two can be larger than 24.0 inches, but not both. This rule was put into place to limit harvest on the larger females of the population.

When Fond du Lac opens a lake, the real work begins for the Division. Fond du Lac sends down 3 – 5 wardens each night, along with a team of 4 - 5 biologists and technicians. Band Members arrive at a landing and must first check-in with the wardens and pick up a permit. Wardens then inspect each boat for safety, life vests, registration, and even inspect spears and nets to ensure they comply with court-ordered specifications. Once the wardens have performed their job, the spearers are free to leave the landing and head out into the lake.

When Band Members have finished for the night, either because they have their walleye limit or they are just plain tired, they must return to the landing and surrender all of their fish to the wardens and biologists for inspection. Biologists measure and weigh each individual fish. There isn’t a random creel that samples some of the anglers and extrapolates to estimate total harvest. Every single fish a Fond du Lac Band Member harvests either with a spear or with a gill net is measured and weighed. In addition, biologists take otoliths (inner ear bones) for aging. Accurate ages are vital for developing models for the walleye population. Band Members have no choice in this. If they want to participate in their Treaty-reserved rights, they must be patient with the inconveniences associated with managing their fisheries. All the Department can offer them for this inconvenience and the time required to measure each fish is a cup of hot coffee at 3:00AM.

The Fond du Lac Fisheries Department is responsible for monitoring each evening’s harvest, and tallying the total weight and number of fish harvested. These numbers are then faxed to the State by 11:00 in the morning following the harvest activity. It is Fond du Lac’s responsibility to stay within their allocation of walleye. This is accomplished by limiting the number of permits each night as the quota is approached, and by closing the fishing earlier in the evening if required. To date, Fond du Lac and the other 7 tribes have never exceeded their allocation of walleye on either Mille Lacs Lake or any of the other, smaller lakes in the 1837 Ceded Territory.

Tribal Harvest to Date

In Mille Lacs Lake, the Supreme Court mandated that for the first five years of harvest activity, tribal harvest would be limited, regardless of how high the total allowable harvest for walleye was. The Total Tribal Allocation must be split between spearing and netting harvest. Each Band decides for themselves how they want to allocate their walleye between spearing and netting so as not to exceed their total allocation. Every year, the Mille Lacs Band gets 55% of the Total Tribal Allocation, leaving the remaining 45% to be split among the six Wisconsin Bands and Fond du Lac. Because of the strict requirements imposed on the Bands to weigh and measure all of their harvested fish, the 8 Bands have stayed well within their harvest quotas.

Past experience indicates that the Bands are capable of properly managing spear and net fisheries in the 1837 Ceded Territory. Given their track record and management activities, there’s no reason to believe that there will be any Tribal over harvest of walleye in the future. In the future, we will be posting Tribal harvest declarations as well as up-to-date harvest numbers for both the Bands and the State.