More than 40 people now face charges in Minnesota's worst fish black marketing case in the last 20 years, state and tribal officials said Monday.
Following last week's indictments of 10 people on federal charges, the Department of Natural Resources said 21 individuals will face state charges involving illegal sales and purchases of walleyes taken mostly from four of northern Minnesota's premiere fishing lakes — Red, Leech, Cass and Winnibigoshish. Authorities said illegal transactions often were conducted informally and likely involved tens of thousands of fish, sold at prices much lower than what they typically fetched at the supermarket.
Some charges also will involve the wanton waste of less commercially valuable species including northern pike that people caught and just dumped in the woods. Authorities expect the total fines to reach tens of thousands of dollars.
"This is a problem for all Minnesotans," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said. "It's just as illegal to purchase a game fish as it is to sell a game fish. Without buyers there would not be sellers."
Several tribal members also will face charges in tribal courts. They'll include 10 to 15 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, including four of the people indicted on federal charges last week, said Jamie Mitchell, the tribe's chief conservation officer.
It wasn't immediately clear how many Red Lake Band of Chippewa members might face tribal charges. Tribal law enforcement and government officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. DNR officials said Red Lake representatives had planned to attend Monday's news conference but were unable due to bad weather in northwestern Minnesota.
Through the three-year investigation, dubbed Operation Squarehook, officials said they hope to change age-old attitudes among some people that there's nothing wrong with black market sales of fish, whether they're out of the cooler in the back of someone's vehicle or from somebody one might meet at a bar.
The DNR said these walleyes sold for $1.50 to $3 per pound, compared with $11 to $17 for legal walleyes, which typically come from Canada. The sales usually were informal, mostly by word of mouth, and mostly among people who either lived in or had connections with the area. In some cases people bought fish illegally and then resold them to others. But as far as officials know, none of the illegally sold fish ended up on restaurant tables.
The DNR's enforcement chief, Jim Konrad, said authorities don't have a firm count of how many fish were illegally traded by the people now facing charges but estimated it was in the tens of thousands.
The black marketing had to have had a negative effect on fish populations in the affected lakes, but the actual impact on fishing opportunities for sport anglers and tribal anglers and netters who follow the laws is hard to measure, said Henry Drewes, the DNR's northwest regional fisheries manager.
Page 2 of 2 - Charges have not yet been filed against all of the 21 people, who face to 35 misdemeanor and six gross misdemeanor charges in state court. Konrad said he thought most were purchasers rather than sellers.
Misdemeanors are punishable by fines up to $1,000 and-or up to 90 days in jail, while gross misdemeanors carry fines up to $3,000 and-or up to a year in jail. Those cases will be handled by local prosecutors in Clearwater, Polk, Itasca, Cass, Pennington and Beltrami counties. Leech Lake's tribal game and fish code, which applies only to members and only on the reservation, specifies a maximum fine of $500 and a one-year loss of fishing and hunting privileges, Mitchell said.
The federal felony charges filed last week involved illegal takings or sales of fish on the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations. Those counts carry maximum penalties of up to five years in prison.
The DNR said the state's largest previous case of walleye black marketing was Operation Can-Am, which led to charges against 45 Minnesotans in 1993, mostly involving fish from Red Lake.