More charges to be filed in investigation of illegal sales of game fish in northern Minnesota

Courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources

Authorities are bringing state charges against 21 individuals following a major investigation into the illegal sale and dumping of thousands of protected game fish in north-central and northwestern Minnesota.

The three-year special investigation, known as Operation Squarehook, involved about 60 officers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tribal authorities from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. This is Minnesota’s largest case of illegal fish commercialization in two decades.

The suspects are facing up to 35 misdemeanor and six gross misdemeanor state charges in six counties in northern Minnesota. Total state fines are expected in the tens of thousands of dollars. Cases have been presented to state county attorneys for prosecution; some individuals have been charged or have already paid fines.

The charges involve both illegal purchases and sales of the game fish, primarily walleye, taken from some of Minnesota’s most popular fishing lakes, including Cass, Leech, Red and Winnibigoshish lakes on the Red Lake or Leech Lake Indian reservations.

“This is a troubling case because it involved large numbers of people and a significant number of fish being illegally bought and sold,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “The investigation should serve notice that the illegal commercialization of walleye and waste of game fish will not be tolerated in Minnesota.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis announced four federal indictments filed against 10 tribal individuals in the same case. These 10 individuals are in addition to the 21 facing state and tribal charges.

State charges are being pursued or have been filed by county attorneys in Clearwater, Polk, Itasca, Cass, Pennington and Beltrami counties. The illegal sale and purchase of game fish is a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, depending upon the value of the fish involved.

Tribal and nontribal members are being charged. Red Lake and Leech Lake authorities are filing charges against tribal members in tribal court.

During the investigation, DNR officers documented the suspects buying and selling thousands of walleye. They also documented hundreds of other unwanted fish, such as northern pike, being thrown away and wasted because they weren’t as highly prized as walleye.

The investigation began with Red Lake and Leech Lake tribal members who legally netted or angled game fish, but illegally sold them to other individuals. Tribal codes govern whether band members can fish or net for subsistence purposes. The Red Lake Band allows subsistence angling for walleye; the Leech Lake Band allows for subsistence angling or netting for walleye.

While band members can legally harvest fish for subsistence, they cannot sell them for profit. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa has a legal commercial walleye fishery, but band members can only sell their fish to the tribe-operated processor.

The 21 individuals facing state charges are nontribal members who illegally purchased or sold fish. In some cases, those individuals were intermediaries who purchased fish from tribal members and sold them to other individuals.

Acting on tips from the public, DNR officers used a variety of investigative techniques to track down the illegal sales and purchase. Fish were sold for between $1.50 and $3 per pound, far less than the $11 to $17 per pound for legal walleye (typically from Canada) sold in grocery stores. Officers discovered a competitive black market and significant supplies of purchasable fish.

“A significant problem is the number of people who knowingly buy illegal fish,” said Col. Jim Konrad, director of the DNR’s Enforcement Division. “The key to stopping this illegal commercialization of our game fish is stopping the demand.”

The illegal fish were of various sizes, from small to trophy specimens. In one case, a trophy muskie was sold for mounting. Some business owners or employees were involved in the illegal purchase and sale of walleye, though officials were unable to document that fish were sold as meals at restaurants or taverns.

“This illegal activity undermines the health of Minnesota’s sport and tribal fisheries and unfairly steals a valuable resource from law-abiding sports people,” Konrad said.

The sale or purchase of less than $50 of game fish is a state misdemeanor and punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and/or up to 90 days of jail. The sale or purchase of more than $50 of game fish is a gross misdemeanor with a minimum fine of $100 and a maximum fine of $3,000 and/or up to a year in jail.

Operation Squarehook was authorized by former DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten and initiated by Konrad in March 2010. Commissioner Landwehr continued the investigation.

In 1993, 45 Minnesotans were charged with criminal conspiracy to illegally transport, take, sell and buy walleye from Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian reservations. The sting operation, started in 1991, was known as Operation Can-Am. The defendants were found guilty of felony and misdemeanor charges.

Operation Squarehook is the largest case of illegal commercialization of fish in Minnesota since that case.

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