As always happens around this time of year, folks are coming to the paper with complaints and questions about tribal netting and behaviors of netters, as well as rumors and reports of violations witnessed. Here are a few clarifications, and I’d be happy to add more information or ask questions of experts if you have them.
Are netters allowed to camp at public accesses? Short answer, no. According to DNR conservation officer Mike Lee, netters are under the same campin and trespassing rules as anyone else, and DNR COs are required to enforce state law for netters as they would for anglers. Some of the confusion stems from the big white tent at the Cedar Creek access. This is not used for camping. It’s set up for the Fond du Lac creel clerks to do their counts and biologists to do their research in a well-lit and heated environment. I was in the tent last Monday, and that’s exactly what was happening. Are there some RVs parked all night at accesses? It’s possible, and if you see it happening, you can contact your local CO or cops who will look into it. Mike gave the example of a fisherman (netter or angler) who shows up at 3 a.m. and catches a few winks at the access. They’re probably not going to throw the book at anyone for that, though technically it may be illegal. As with all laws, there are some gray areas and judgment calls, but Mike did not make it seem like netters camping at accesses is a widespread problem. Many netters do camp at private and public campgrounds around the lake.
Are there lots of northerns being thrown back by netters? Under the Bands’ conservation code, netters can throw fish back if they can be revived and swim away on their own. A fellow stopped by today who said he witnessed tribal netters shaking northerns out of a net. He had no evidence that they died or photos or videos of the process, but he did report it to a tribal CO, who told him he was in the boat and the northerns swam away. There’s no way for us to determine the factuality of either claim. I asked Mike if he’s heard many complaints of northerns floating dead in netting areas, and he said he’s received one call. I suspect that since I haven’t received any pics or videos of dead northerns (except one video that showed the fish apparently swimming away), the rumor mill may be blowing things out of proportion. It’s true that if tribal netters reach their northern quota, the entire harvest, including walleyes, has to stop. (Some Band netters say that’s not fair, since state anglers have surpassed their allocation in the past.) Clearly, there’s an interest in not reaching the quota, so many netters will attempt to revive and release northerns. However, I’ve seen northerns, perch, muskies and suckers harvested over the years, so not all netters are releasing fish.
Can the state DNR enforce violations by netters? They can prosecute netters for violation of state camping laws, traffic laws, criminal violations of any sort, but NOT violations related to the tribal harvest. Those are handled by tribal conservation officers. Basically, the state of Minnesota is irrelevant to the tribal harvest except when it comes to setting the allocation — which the federal courts determined should be a joint effort of the state and the bands.
A bit of background: The tribal harvest is based on the Treaty of 1837, which was signed 21 years before Minnesota became a state. We often hear complaints during this time of year that there shouldn’t be “separate laws for separate groups,” but that’s really a misunderstanding of the issue. It’s not about “laws” — local, state or federal. It’s about a treaty. I know there are plenty of arguments that treaties in general with Indian tribes should be ignored, that this treaty was interpreted incorrectly by the Supreme Court, that we should all move on, but it is what it is. My opinion is that it’s easy for us to say that if the roles were reversed, “we” would choose from the goodness of our hearts not to exercise “our” treaty rights, but I’m a little skeptical — especially if “our” ancestors (and even parents and grandparents) had been subjected to decades, centuries of mistreatment by the dominant culture. It seems to me that different opportunities based on race rankle people more than the many other unequal opportunities in our society. We have “different laws for different groups” all over the place (65 vs. 64 year olds, Isle vs. Wahkon, Minnesota vs. Wisconsin, 20 vs. 21 year olds, vets vs. non-vets, men vs. women, rich vs. poor), but when those differences are race-based (albeit treaty based), we get angry. I don’t really get that, especially considering all the benefits our race has afforded us over the centuries and in our individual lives.
I’m also skeptical of the arguments that netting during spawn is somehow worse for the “resource” (I hate that term) than netting or angling at any other time. The tribal arguments go like this: There’s hundreds of miles of shoreline on Mille Lacs, and tribal gillnets take up a small percentage of that. And when it comes to pulling a female out of the population, it doesn’t matter if she’s ripe with eggs in April or fat and happy on the flats in August. It’s still one fewer reproductive-age female. It looks worse (to some) when she’s got eggs on board and gets caught in a net, but it’s not worse. It’s the same.
Most of it has to do with familiarity. We think angling with hook and line is normal and honorable while netting (which probably has a much longer lifespan in human history) is unsportsmanlike “slaughter.” To many people, catch-and-release fishing is animal cruelty and getting the harvest over with quickly through use of nets is less harmful and more respectful of the fish. To white folks, Indians in motorboats doesn’t square with claims of culture and tradition; to Indians, use of cameras and sonar and GPS high-tech tackle is a similar betrayal of tradition. The only reason the two seem so wildly different is because of our upbringing.
Let’s face it: There are examples of poor behavior by anglers and netters, from releasing injured fish to letting fish rot after meaning to clean them, to dumping guts, to harvesting illegally, to losing tackle, line, lead sinkers, or gillnets in the lake, to dumping fish guts or leaving fishhouse blocks on the ice. Neither community is perfect.
There is this reality, however: When the Bands take 142,500 pounds of walleye out of the lake in April, that’s about 75,000 walleyes anglers can’t catch and 75,000 walleyes that aren’t competing with the remainder for limited forage. One result may be that the remaining walleyes will be less likely to bite. Nobody knows the details of that relationship, and forage is based on so many variables that it’s hard to say a good or bad bite has anything to do with a springtime harvest, but it “feels” like it must have some impact.
When you go there, though, you have to go here: That state and Mille Lacs Band had a negotiated settlement that was scuttled by the Legislature in 1993, mainly due to angling interests who thought they would win a federal court case, which they lost a few years later (by a razor thin 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision). That negotiated settlement, according to the Legislature’s website, “would have required the band to withdraw their lawsuit, limit the Lake Mille Lacs walleye harvest to 24,000 pounds per year, and adhere to a band conservation code. In return, the state would give the band $8.6 million, 7,500 acres of land, and exclusive fishing rights on 4.5% of Lake Mille Lacs. The agreement also allowed traditional spear fishing and netting practices.”
According to some, the negotiated settlement also would’ve meant the state would recognized the boundaries of the 1855 Mille Lacs Reservation. Depending on who you talk to, that may or may not be a big deal (I’m in the “not” camp).
What got anglers upset then were the same arguments that get them upset now, and in my view, those arguments aren’t any better now than they were then. They’re mostly emotional, and often lacking in facts, sound reasoning, and empathy.
The Minnesota angling community got what they asked for, but not what they wanted. The result: Six Wisconsin bands and Fond du Lac signed onto the lawsuit, and the feds recognized their rights to harvest in the entire 1837 territory, because they were in that original land ceded in the 1837 Treaty, so their rights to hunt and fish and gather were also acknowledged.
There’s still the possibility that those bands would’ve sued to net Mille Lacs even if the negotiated settlement had passed, but the federal courts probably would not have heard the case if the state and Mille Lacs Band already had a negotiated agreement. We’ll never know for sure.
Another question we’ll never know the answer to: If people knew then what they know now, would they have approved the negotiated settlement? I’d say they probably would have, even if it did nothing but keep Wisconsin bands from driving across state lines with tens of thousands of pounds of Mille Lacs walleyes.