Fishing nets get trapped in ice, go missing on Mille Lacs

Garrison, Minnesota (AP) 5-08

A dozen gillnets set by Chippewa bands became trapped in ice floes and went missing recently on Lake Mille Lacs, reviving the debate over tribal fishing on one of the state’s premiere walleye lakes.

The 100-foot nets disappeared April 30 and May 1 near Garrison on the west side of the big lake, said Sue Erickson, spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, an intertribal agency that oversees treaty rights on behalf of its 11 member tribes. Several of the nets were recovered in the days following their loss.

Officials weren’t sure if the nets that remained missing as of May 2 were still catching fish, Erickson said. She said it was possible they became balled up.

“The nets that were recovered were shredded by the ice,” Erickson said. “They were not catching anything. Generally speaking, when nets become balled up, they don’t catch anything.”

The unrecovered nets have stirred hard feelings around the lake, where some anglers and residents are still unhappy with a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming Chippewa hunting and fishing rights in east-central Minnesota under an 1837 treaty.

Every spring, eight Chippewa bands, including two from Minnesota, set gillnets and use spears to harvest spawning walleyes in Lake Mille Lacs. They typically set the nets in the evening and pick them up the next morning. Erickson said she thought the unrecovered nets were owned by Wisconsin Chippewa members, not the two Minnesota bands party to the treaty: the Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac bands of Ojibwe.

Steve Fellegy, an angler who lives on the lake, said the missing nets likely contain rotting walleyes that will go to waste. He said the netters should have anticipated shifting ice conditions.

“There is the potential for reckless wanton waste of fish,” Fellegy said. “At the end of 72 hours or four days, surely they’re getting to the point of spoiling. An ungutted walleye doesn’t last long on ice in a refrigerator.”

Rick Bruesewitz, Department of Natural Resources areas supervisor in Aitkin, said the Chippewa bands are responsible for collecting the nets, which could present a “conservation” problem if left to drift for very long.

“With a dozen nets, we would like to see that avoided,” he said. “We don’t want ghost nets floating around all summer.”

Erickson said the band members would try to recover the nets when ice conditions are favorable.

Netters ran into problems April 29 and the 30th when winds shifted on Lake Mille Lacs, pushing ice floes into the western shore, Erickson said. She estimated band members set 170 to 180 nets in Garrison Bay the evening of April 29 and were tending them around 3 a.m. April 30 when they got word that ice floes were moving west.

“It came in fast and furious,” she said of the moving ice, which she described as “dangerous” for people out there. “There were a lot of people out there, folks and biologists and netters scrambling for those nets. I would consider it an accidental type of thing.”

Two other nets were lost the previous night under similar conditions north of Garrison.

Tribal officials estimated two rescued nets contained about 40 pounds of walleyes each, which led them to subtract 400 pounds from their quota for the 10 missing nets. As of May 2, band members had harvested about 45,000 pounds of walleye out of their 122,500-pound quota.

Fellegy said weather forecasters predicted the wind shifts, so tribal leaders should have known better.

“It’s beyond comprehension that you have people in a supervisory position, salaried by the government, making decisions like that,” he said.