Jim Konrad, the Department of Natural Resources' chief enforcement officer, talks Monday in Minneapolis. Twenty-one more individuals will face charges in the bust of the northern Minnesota fish poaching ring reported last week by the U.S. Attorney's Office. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Brian Peterson)
BEMIDJI – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources detailed the results of a three-year investigation into illegal fishing activities Monday.
The investigation, code-named “Operation Squarehook,” will result in state charges being filed against 21 people in six northern Minnesota counties, the DNR said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced last week that 10 men had been indicted on similar charges.
“I just want to reiterate that this type of sale and purchase of game is illegal,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said during a press conference. “And it hurts all of the legal anglers and netters in the state by taking the resource away from them.”
Operation Squarehook is the largest case of its kind since 1993, when 45 Minnesotans were charged with criminal conspiracy to illegally transport, take, sell and buy walleye from Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian reservations, according to the DNR.
Twenty-one people face up to 35 misdemeanor and six gross misdemeanor charges relating to the illegal selling and purchasing of fish, primarily walleye. That includes nine people in Beltrami County, according to the DNR.
Beltrami County Assistant Attorney Randy Burg said some already have been issued citations.
“Other charges are going to have to be the subject of formal complaints for gross misdemeanors,” Burg said. “None of those have yet been filed, but I expect they will be filed shortly.”
Two people already pleaded guilty in Clearwater County, according to the DNR.
Whether the offense will be charged as a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor depends on the number of fish allegedly purchased and sold.
Jamie Mitchell, the Leech Lake chief conservation officer, said 10 to 15 people will be charged in tribal court. Some of those people include those already indicted by the federal government.
Charges are also expected in Red Lake tribal court.
The lakes involved in the investigation include Cass Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, Leech Lake and Red Lake.
It’s unclear exactly how many fish were involved in the illegal activities, but it was likely in the tens of thousands, said DNR enforcement chief Jim Konrad said. He also said there was no indication the fish that was sold were served as food in restaurants.
Despite possible population effects on the four lakes, the limits for anglers have not been changed, said Henry Drewes, the northwest region’s fisheries manager for the DNR.
“It’s very difficult to determine whether there’s a population effect,” he said. “For certain, the removal of those numbers of fish over that time period can make it more difficult for the state angler or the legal tribal fisher to harvest fish under their respective regulation.”
The alleged activities included anglers and netters selling fish directly to buyers, as well as to brokers who would sell to a third party. Some illegal fish dumping of unwanted fish, like northern pike, also allegedly occurred, the DNR said.
“I think it has a lot to do with local contacts and that sort of thing,” Konrad said. “It was very informal and also word of mouth rather than anything organized.”
The investigation began with Red Lake and Leech Lake tribal members who legally caught fish, but illegally sold them to individuals.
“While band members can legally harvest fish for subsistence, they cannot sell them for profit,” the DNR stated in a press release. “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 people facing state charges are non-tribal members. Most of the people indicted in federal court are tribal members. Operation Squarehook involved DNR officers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as tribal authorities from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Konrad referred to the illegal selling and purchasing of fish as a “cultural norm” in some parts of the state.
“With investigations like this, that target the purchaser as well as the supplier, we hope to change that culture,” Konrad said. “Until people stop buying illegal fish, the suppliers will continue to catch and sell them.”
John Hageman covers local business and North Dakota politics. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Bemidji Pioneer.