Investing in Fish, Preserving Red Cliff Culture

Small fingerlings roiled the water in the translucent plastic tubs placed before ready volunteers in the Red Cliff tribal fish hatchery at Wisconsin’s northern edge. The agitated three- to six-inch coaster brook trout—known as fry—made the water appear to be boiling. A mild anesthetic was added and soon the young trout were calmed and primed to undergo the fish version of cattle branding—a clipping of their fins that will identify them as the Class of 2012.

In mid-May, some 24,000 of these trout graduated from hatchery rearing tanks and were released into the vast Lake Superior as part of a years-long effort by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to reinstate a once-significant strand in the Great Lake’s food web. The band’s hatchery is one of only two that are regionally rearing coaster brook trout; it is the only one using brood fish native to the watershed.

Coasters, as they are called, are not a critical economic or food source at Red Cliff, not the way the commercially harvested whitefish, lake trout and herring are; nor do they compare to the subsistence harvest of walleye and muskies. But the native coaster—devastated by habitat loss and predation by invasive sea lamprey—are of cultural importance to this traditional fishing community.

Reviving the coasters is just one mission of the band’s Fishery Management Department. Its missions—preserving species, restoring habitat, helping economics and providing education—have grown along with the hatchery itself, first established in 1987 out of a garage near a dock owned by the band. “We started off raising fish in kiddie pools and just grew from there,” says Bryan Bainbridge, head of fisheries and a tribal council member. The hatchery now has three large buildings for production/office work, brood stock and isolation, and three clay-lined, one-acre outdoor ponds.

Hatchery manager Chase Meierotto, a tribal member who returned after getting a degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says this year their coaster fry may reach 100,000. The program breeds adults for three years and keeps its fry until they are slightly more than a year old.

Red Cliff Fisheries Management Department

Chase Meierotto, manager of the hatchery, about to release a lake trout after a monitoring assessment

The tribe’s original stocking program involved lake trout and now, thanks to the efforts of several different tribes, the state and national governments, Lake Superior has the only naturally sustaining lake trout population among the Great Lakes. That means the hatchery can focus on the coaster brook trout, a larger version of its river-dwelling cousin. “It’s one of the gems we have,” tribal game warden Mark Duffy says of the coaster. “It fights decently on the line, I’m told.”

Clipping fins alongside Duffy is the president of the local Trout Unlimited organization, and he can attest to the coaster’s charms as a game fish. Chuck Campbell believes the beauty of the coaster, with its red-blushed stomach and speckled body, is part of its appeal for recreational fishermen. “They just stand out in the gin-clear background” of Lake Superior water, he explains. “And brook trout is as good a fighter as bass.”

Members of Campbell’s local chapter of Trout Unlimited joined Red Cliff community residents and Northland College volunteers, giving up a Saturday to help clip the thousands of fry. Standing with scissors in one hand and a fry in the other, Nathan Gordon, vice chairman of the Red Cliff Tribal Council, says, “I’m just trying to be a part of it, just to see what’s going on.… I believe it’s a key element, stocking the fish that are native to our people, our ancestors.”

Fishing—both commercial and subsistence—is key to the culture and economy of the Red Cliff people. It always has been, Bainbridge says. “It’s always been a fishing community out on the lake. In the mid-1800s, officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs describe the Red Cliff Native community as being a commercial fishing community.… Locals traded [fish] and sold them off to non-Native people.”

Red Cliff manages its own commercial fishing fleet, licensing about 10 large boats each year. The department does fish population monitoring and enforces commercial and recreation fishing regulations alongside the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe and Wisconsin’s state natural resource officials. The fishery department’s fleet includes a 36-foot long, 12.5-foot-wide Henley Marine boat used for enforcement and monitoring.

The tribe’s commercial fishing industry makes an impact in the reservation community of about 2,000 people. Tribal enrollment is slightly more than 6,900. “Each big boat will employ three people—five to seven people in the peak season,” Bainbridge reports. “There also are ripples. The fish is distributed locally” to restaurants, tribal members and other consumers.

“The tribes aren’t out there just for the commercial fishing,” adds Duffy. “There’s subsistence fishing, too.”

This year, the tribal subsistence spear-fishing of walleye has been a source of friction with recreational sport fishermen and the state Department of Natural Resources. Earlier this year, the six northern Wisconsin bands of Ojibwe band declared they may take 59,399 walleye from more than 500 northern lakes in

Konnie LeMay

Nearly 24,000 fingerlings are clipped before being released.

ceded territory, as allowed in treaty agreements. That total was to be subtracted from the 84,013 that the department calculates as this year’s “safe harvest” of walleye among those lakes. After the declaration, the DNR dropped sport angler walleye limits to one-per-day on 197 lakes, causing considerable controversy. In late May, however, after the spearfishing harvest came in at just 28,382 walleye, the DNR revised the limits, ending up with just seven lakes with only one walleye limit and 101 lakes with limits of two per day.

The controversy got wide coverage. What gets little or no coverage, say tribal officials, are the programs Red Cliff funds to assure future walleye populations. Tribal fishery specialists gather thousands of eggs right on the docks from speared walleye, which are fertilized, hatched and reared in the three outdoor ponds at the hatchery. In fall, the fingerlings—larger than those in the wild—are returned to the lake from which the eggs were taken. They give talks to local lake associations about their programs.

Meierotto believes that restocking walleye into their birth lake is critical. “That’s one of the things that we like to put out there; we don’t like to mix those fish.… Some people just want more walleye. We want the same strain of fish. They’re in that lake for a reason, and they probably do well there. We like to keep that integrity.”

Many more fingerlings are stocked each fall than are taken by spear-fishing. “We’ve had a lake where we take 40 fish or 60 fish a year, and then every year we’re putting in a minimum of 2,000 extended-growth fish from six to nine inches that grow in our ponds,” says Bainbridge.

“What we take out, we’re actually putting back in,” explains Gordon. “I see always them talking about us taking, but I never see how much we are putting back.”

As for the coaster stocking, you might think the head of tribal fishery management would thrill to catch their stocked trout during monitoring, but Bainbridge gets more enthusiastic about fish that are not from their brood stock. “We pick these fish up that have no marks on them, who haven’t lived a day of their life in a tank.”

That means natural spawning—the point, after all, of stocking.

The tribally run hatchery and commercial fishing industry are not the only fish-related activity on the reservation. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point has established the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility to research techniques and options for the fish-rearing as a business. The tribal land, leased to the university, was chosen because of its “really good water and water quality and the history that the tribe has with the tribal hatchery,” says facility manager Greg Fisher, who used to work for the tribal fishery management. “We have people coming from all over the country for training.… Learning hands-on how to raise fish.”

Those wanting to learn aquaculture techniques have come from as far as Quebec and Europe. The facility, though not a hatchery, specializes in rearing techniques for lake trout, arctic char, walleyes and saugeyes, a natural hybrid of sauger and walleye, and can accommodate other requested species. “We’re the only facility of this kind in the Midwest that has the equipment and the capabilities to do all the species,” Fisher says.

The facility does not have a direct tribal tie, but it has done fish giveaways, like 5,200 pounds of arctic char to the local food shelf and to community members.

Campbell lands an alumnus of the Red Cliff hatchery.

Eating fish is part of the fin-clipping Saturday thanks to one expert fisherman. Joe Duffy, Mark’s father and a lifelong commercial fisherman, fried up fish in the small hatchery kitchen. Many volunteers joke that Joe’s cooking lures them back to help every year. Joe agrees that might be true, and he isn’t about to reveal his secret fish batter.

Although he has sold off his boats, including one he bought from Jacques Cousteau after the famed marine explorer visited Lake Superior, Joe says, “I still go out as a deckhand.”

Duffy, in his 70s, says fishing once was a major employment option, especially if you could weather that Lake Superior’s moods. “Anyone who could take the sea could get a job.”

Fishing is a family tradition for the Duffys, though Joe is the only one of seven brothers to pursue it. “I’m the only one that stayed up here and fished.… I just like fishing; I tried the city and hated it—too many cars, too many people, not enough fish.”

Making sure there are enough fish around them is the point of the fishery department’s work, according to Joe’s son Mark. He works, “for the native species that are here, to keep them in the niche that they belong.”

And a healthy fish population keeps secure the Red Cliff people’s traditional niche—as a vital part of the web of life along the shores of Lake Superior.