LAKE MILLE LACS, Minn. - A tip from a local resident led officials to an abandoned gillnet on Lake Mille Lacs on May 20 that contained 67 dead walleye weighing 112.4 pounds.
Mille Lacs is co-managed between the state and eight bands of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians with court-affirmed treaty rights to net a portion of walleye. Each side agrees to a maximum amount of walleyes it can kill each season.
Charlie Rasmussen, spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission said that he and the Fond du Lac Conservation Enforcement Department were aware of the find and have begun an investigation.
"Fond du Lac is committed to the enforcement of its codes and regulations, and will take appropriate enforcement action when the investigation is complete," Rasmussen said.
Non-tribal members are under strict catch-and-release-only fishing rules, while tribal members are allowed to net.
"All of the fish that were found in the net will be counted against the Fond du Lac Band's overall walleye quota for this fishing year," he said.
The incident is almost certain to inflame long-simmering tensions on the lake, where tribal netting has been a flash point of controversy for years.
Many resort owners and non-tribal anglers on the legendary central Minnesota lake blame tribal netting for a long-term decline in Mille Lacs' marquee walleye population - and the specter of an abandoned net and wasted walleyes provides evidence for those who distrust netting - including Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM), a conservation group that has unsuccessfully sued to change how the lake is managed.
"Mille Lacs co-management does not work," said PERM's president Doug Meyenburg. "What makes this waste especially offensive is how it highlights the failure of co-management. That failure is leaving non-tribal anglers, resorters and related businesses in the Mille Lacs fishery feeling as trapped as those wasted walleye."
Rumors of abandoned nets are frequent, but irrefutable evidence is uncommon.
Scientists studying the lake have agreed that the nets are not to blame for the dropping walleye numbers, but resentment remains.