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Red Lake walleye make comeback to retail market

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RED LAKE, Minn. - After many years of not exercising their traditional ways on Red Lake, members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians now have the opportunity to regain one of their oldest traditions and improve their reservation's economy with commercial fishing.

Red Lake, in the northern portion of Minnesota, was - at one time - one of the premier fishing lakes in the region and walleye was the premier fish. After many years of gill net fishing for the band's fishery, the walleye were depleted to the point where a moratorium had to be imposed and a commercial fishery was closed.

''The people are pretty happy. The moratorium went on for eight years,'' said Floyd ''Buck'' Jourdain, Red Lake chairman.

Jourdain said the moratorium was declared as a joint decision with the band, the state of Minnesota and the BIA. There were as few as 1.4 million walleye left in the lake at the time. Through the efforts of the state and band, the recovery effort was effective.

''It was a miraculous comeback. This will be a tremendous boost for the economy and for the culture, which has been absent. We are happy to be able to access that again,'' Jourdain said.

An important part of the equation of opening the lake again is the reopening of the band's fishery. The fishery opened in 1917 to provide a food source during World War II and operated until the mid-1970s. Another building was constructed, but the entire operation shut down in 1996.

''It took many, many years to happen and it was a hard thing for those to accept that they were going to be without that seasonal gathering,'' Jourdain said. ''Gill netting is what devastated the lake. Gill nets don't discriminate; they take anything.''

When the moratorium took place, the entire band made the decision on regulation and decided there would be no gill netting.

The commercial fishing operation could not operate because it could not meet federal standards. With a $1 million grant from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota, fishery operation will have new refrigeration and other remodeling will meet federal standards, said Pat Brown, Red Lake Band fishery biologist.

''Right now we estimate between 14 and 17 million walleye are swimming around. This year's quota is 800,000 pounds,'' Brown said.

The Red Lake Band owns 237,000 acres of Red Lake. The state has jurisdiction over 48,000 acres of the lake, which is the sixth largest natural lake within the boundaries of the United States. It's the Great Lakes, then Red Lake, Brown said.

The band does not anticipate harvesting the 800,000 pounds right away, but by this summer, consumers will be seeing Red Lake walleye at their markets.

Brown said the band has talked with several restaurant chains and retailers who have shown a lot of interest.

''Red Lake walleye will be the only walleye harvested and marketed in the U.S. Most all other walleye comes from Canada.

''The fish are clean, we are so far north. Red Lake is known for quality fish,'' Brown said.

Band members will have the chance to get involved in the commercial fishing, which will be accomplished with hook and line. That means band members will be in their boats and on the ice during winter to pull in the walleye for the fishery. They will be paid for their efforts and at the same time boost the economy of the reservation.

Brown said most of the walleye will be taken in the winter, when the lake is covered with ice.

Regulation will be the key to managing the walleye population.

''We will emphasize regulation and be strict about any black-market fishing. This will be an income for the families; they work together from children to the elders. It's a way of life,'' Jourdain said.