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Red Lake re-opens commercial fishery; Grant supports modernization of processing plant

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Bemidji,Minnesota 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
Red Lake re-opens commercial fishery; Grant supports modernization of processing plant
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

REDBY -- The Red Lake walleye stocks have recovered, and Red Lake Fisheries is again processing fillets after more than 10 years.

The plant began accepting fish in September, but Sean Rock, fisheries manager, said the plant has only processed about 2,000 pounds so far.


"I probably expected a little more than that, but weather access slowed things down," said Joel Rohde, Red Lake Nation Foods manager. One of the delays was a heavy snow covering thin ice making the lake surface slushy, he said.

"Our target is 820,000 pounds," said Pat Brown of the annual catch. Brown is a Red Lake Nation fisheries biologist.

The Red Lake Tribal Council set up regulations for the commercial fishery. Those who wish to participate check out a cooler from the plant. Fishing by hook and line, they can each bring in a daily catch of 50 walleye ranging between 13 and 20 inches. Netting is not planned for the foreseeable future. The anglers receive $1.75 per pound of walleye in the round. The subsistence fishing limit is 10 walleye per person per day.

Anyone who violates the slot limit or per-day catch will be fined and will lose fishing rights, Rock said. He said Red Lake recruited him from a 19-year career in Alaska fisheries.

"We've checked out 200 coolers so far," Rock said. "There have roughly been 30 different people coming in. I'm sure it will improve in the next couple of weeks."

Shared assets

Rohde said the Tribal Council's desire is to give all Red Lake members access to the resource, not only those who can afford expensive equipment. "Basically, anybody can walk out on the lake," Rohde said. "They're hoping most of our take will be in the wintertime."

"Fishermen from all over the rez can make money," said Douglas King, who works in the processing plant and also fishes commercial. "Hook and line is the only way they can do it, but they've been bringing in the fish."

Rohde said the Tribal Council also plans to set up a special fund for the fisheries profits, which after a few years could be distributed as bonuses to all tribal members. Historically, he said, season-end bonuses just went to the fishermen. He added that paying well for the fish up front should discourage people from selling walleye illegally.

Tribal outreach

When the Tribal Council considered re-opening the fishery, the processing plant needed refurbishment and equipment needed replacement, he said.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community provided the fishery a $1 million grant for 2007 and, this fall, another $1 million economic development grant for 2008. SMSC, owner of Mystic Lake Casino and other businesses, uses financial resources from gaming and non-gaming enterprises to support tribal operations and infrastructure, as well as contributing to advancement of other American Indian tribes. Contributions this year have topped $12.5 million.

"It's a grand opportunity to start up the factory," Rock said. "It's a unique situation with the tribe owning the resource."

Historical fishery

Red Lake's commercial fishery opened in 1917 under Minnesota state law to produce fish during the World War I meat shortage. The fishery was established as a cooperative in 1929 and operated by the Red Lake Nation. It closed in 1996 after the walleye stocks collapsed in the mid-1990s. Brown said his department, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, University of Minnesota and Red Lakes Fisheries Association collaborated to revive the walleye population. In 1999, the entities involved signed a 10-year walleye fishing moratorium agreement and began a major restocking effort. The restocking was so successful that limited fishing was opened in 2006.

"It was all of us working together -- state, fed, rez," Brown said.

Charlie Barrett, processing manager and 42-year employee of the fisheries stayed on to maintain the building.

"It was good to see it start up again," he said.

Economic growth

Currently, the plant employs six people, but Rohde said he expects that number to rise to about 20 people as the catch increases.

"Eventually, we hope to take all species," he said. "Right now, we're just taking walleye and perch. In the past, Charlie smoked a lot of fish. We're looking at getting a new, modern, self-contained (smoking) unit."

He said Walker Eelpout Festival organizers have enquired about the possibility of the fishery custom processing the eelpout catch for their fish nugget fries, and there are opportunities for Red Lake to process fish from other tribes' resources.

"Probably one million pounds of fish coming through here is what this plant was designed for," he said.

Rohde said there is a retail counter at the processing plant, but he expects the majority of sales to be direct through Internet orders from restaurants. The fish not sold fresh are frozen in a state-of-the art blast tunnel that can freeze 1,000 pounds of fillets per hour.

"We just had an FDA inspection last week and passed with flying colors," Rock said.

Other pieces of new machinery fillet the whole fish and sort fillets according to weight. The SMSC contributions also made possible purchase of a forklift, pallet jack and a flatbed truck for ice delivery and fish pickup.

In addition, Rock said, a new tub grinder processes the fish waste to mix with other organic materials. The material is composted for use as fertilizer on the Red Lake wild rice farms located on the western side of the reservation.

Rohde said the fishery will also adopt a new logo. The old boxes still in use are printed with "Best Fish in the Business," but the new labels will identify the fish by origin as "Red Lake Walleye," or, when custom processing for other fisheries begins, as Canadian walleye.

With 73 percent unemployment, the economic development of the fishery will be a boon to Red Lake members and the surrounding communities, Rohde said.

Brown agreed. "If we bring money into the area here, it's going to be spent in Bemidji and everywhere," he said.