The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe has resumed commercial walleye netting on the tribal waters of Upper and Lower Red Lake.
It's the first time the band has allowed netting since the walleye population crashed in the mid-1990s from overfishing.
In the old days, hundreds of band members made a living from walleye netting. Now, tribal leaders allow only six people to pull fish from the lake. They say netting is necessary to keep the band's fishery plant running at full capacity.
As the handful of netters returned from the lake and hung their nets to dry, Michael Cobenais, who heads up the crew, said he's glad to be back on the water. He was a career walleye netter before the population crashed.
"It feels good," he said. "We're getting back into the swing of things now and things are picking up. We've got some experienced fishermen on board with us now and we've got a couple of younger guys who had a taste of it when they were younger."
Cobenais said his crew is taking more than a thousand pounds of walleye a day out of the lake. But, by the end of this season, they'll double that. It may seem like a lot of fish, but experts say there's plenty for the taking.
Many say the walleye recovery on Red Lake is nothing short of remarkable. It followed a massive restocking effort by the tribe and the state of Minnesota, which has jurisdiction over a portion of Upper Red Lake.
Tribal fisheries biologist Pat Brown said the lake is probably as healthy as it's been in nearly a century. But since walleye fishing resumed on the lake in 2006, the band has been cautious with its commercial take, limiting it to hook and line only. Any tribal angler can participate, and hundreds have. They're allowed to bring in 100 fish a day and are paid a $1.75 a pound.
Pat Brown said fishing with hook and line is fine when the fish are biting. But things slow down in the summertime, when walleye typically move to deeper water and are harder to catch. Brown said that's why now is a good time start netting again.
"Our quota right now is 820,000 pounds on the reservation," Brown said. "Fishing basically took about 350,000 pounds this year... So we still, you're looking at a half a million pounds of walleye that we can safely take out of the lake that's basically being left there."
The resumption of netting means more jobs at the tribe's fish processing plant in Redby. Duane Nedeau, one of about two dozen people filleting walleye on one of the plant's processing lines, said the workers earn a good hourly wage.
But, before netting started a few weeks ago, he added, there weren't enough fish coming in to keep him busy for a full day's work. Now, Nedeau said, he and his co-workers get more hours and can earn a better living.
"It's good work, you know," Nedeau said. "I like it here. Sometimes it's hard to find a job around here, you know. Some people don't realize that, you know. Some people don't like to work, but I like to work...It's good money."
Potential abuse of the system
State DNR officials say they support Red Lake's limited resumption of walleye netting. But the biggest worry for both jurisdictions is the illegal bootlegging of black market walleyes, something that played a big role in devastating the species in past decades.
Tribal conservation officers are in close contact with the state DNR, and neither are seeing a problem with black market fish. Joel Rohde is program manager for Red Lake Nation Foods, the company that markets walleye for the tribe. Rohde said people are more aware of what illegal fish sales can do to the walleye resource.
"Is there some of it going on? More than likely, yes," Rohde admitted. "Is it as bad as it was? We don't believe so. Time will tell here, but what we're seeing is a lot of fishermen that are out there hook and line fishing and working hard to make a living, taking it upon themselves to make sure that nobody else is abusing that resource and that everybody has a fair shot at it."
Red Lake Nation Foods sells close to 30,000 pounds of fresh and frozen walleye fillets a month. Most of the fish goes to wholesale marketers, grocery stores and restaurants in the Upper Midwest. The tribe's fastest growing market is direct sales of walleye on the Internet.