A discovery of several hundred walleye carcasses dumped in a field near Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota threatens to ignite local tensions about tribal fishing.
A neighbor found the heap of rotting fish, including hundreds of filleted walleyes and several whole northern pike, on the edge of a field in rural Isle, Minn. on Tuesday afternoon. The neighbor alerted the property's owner, Dennis Tenhoff, who then called the state's Department of Natural Resources to open an investigation.
Tenhoff's property is about three miles from Mille Lacs Lake, where eight tribal bands have netting rights as a result of a 1999 Supreme Court decision.
The court's ruling sparked anger from local fishermen who argue that the 100-foot-long nets capture too many fish and damage the lake. The tribal bands are allowed to net 132,500 pounds of walleye this season.
"It's bad enough they way it is with them netting, the hard feelings," Tenhoff said. "Then to do stuff like this just adds fuel to the fire."
Investigators said they don't have any suspects in the case, and have cautioned against assuming that tribal members are to blame.
"The thing about guts is who knows how long they were held before they were dumped?" said Sue Erickson, a spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the agency heading up the investigation. "If one band was fishing that night, would it have to be that band? Not necessarily. It's tricky."
Fred Maulson, the commission's chief enforcement officer, said he's investigating whether the incident could be connected to the theft of four tribal fishing nets. The nets were reported stolen four days before Tenhoff's neighbor discovered the rotting walleyes.
"We're going to look at every possible avenue of finding the perpetrators, if they are tribal," Maulson said. "And if they are nontribal, we will turn it over to the state wardens to prosecute on their end. So it takes time."
Investigators said they usually receive at least one report of dumped fish each season.
Maulson said this marks the second report of the season. Last weekend, over 60 pounds of whole northern pike were found in a dumpster at a Mille Lacs resort. Maulson said he doubts the two incidents are related.
Members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, one of the eight bands with netting rights, worried that the case could spark tensions with people who resent the Supreme Court's ruling.
"The people who did this should be accountable for their actions," said John Dunkley, the Mille Lacs band's acting DNR commissioner. "This goes against everything the Ojibwe tradition stands for and against what we teach our members."