A major fish poaching scheme involving the buying and selling of hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of walleyes netted from some of northern Minnesota's most popular lakes has been busted, authorities said Wednesday.
Ten men from northern Minnesota have been indicted for allegedly netting walleyes and other fish from lakes on the Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian reservations and selling them in violation of federal, state and tribal law.
The illegal activity allegedly has occurred since 2009 and was widespread. An unknown number of other people also face state and tribal charges, authorities said. Among the lakes where fish were netted and then sold were Leech, Cass, Winnibigoshish, Red and Six Mile, according to indictments Tuesday in Minneapolis.
"It's a very big deal,'' said Jim Konrad, enforcement director for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "It's illegal activity that has significant effects not only on state resources, but tribal resources.''
The charges alone, which were investigated by the DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Leech Lake and Red Lake bands, may not curtail the illegal activity, Konrad said.
"Nothing will end it until people stop buying fish [illegally],'' he said. "If the demand doesn't end, it will continue.''
A bar owner in Bagley and a restaurant owner in Bena are among those who allegedly bought walleyes.
The charges recall similar poaching allegations dating to the early 1990s that led to the collapse of the walleye fishery on the 212,000-acre Upper and Lower Red Lake. Walleyes from Red Lake were routinely sold as far south as the Twin Cities.
The lake's walleye fishery has since been restored by the DNR and the Red Lake band.
Konrad declined to comment further, saying that the DNR would hold a news conference Monday in St. Paul.
Lenny Fineday, legal director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said the number of people involved is large.
"Between 15 and 20 individuals will likely be issued tribal citations,'' he said. Those people are either members of the Leech Lake Band or other bands.
Those convicted face fines and possible revocation of hunting, fishing and gathering rights, he said.
"Under the band's conservation code, the act of netting was not illegal,'' Fineday emphasized. "Band members have every right to net for sustenance fishing. It was the act of selling the fish that was illegal.''
Rumors for years
Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, who guides on many of the lakes, said rumors have been flying for years that band members were netting fish and selling them.
"I take my hat off to the DNR and federal government for doing something about it,'' he said.
"We're all stewards of the water, whether Native American or white, and if we don't take care of this, we won't have it. We saw what happened on Red Lake.''
The undercover investigation leading to the indictments began in 2009, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis. Officers made several purchases of illegally taken fish, according to the indictments, and seized fish by using search warrants.
The indictments alleges violation of the federal Lacey Act, which typically concerns the illegal interstate transport of game and fish. The act can also be invoked when a tribal law is being broken, a source familiar with the case said.
The 10 indicted men face potential maximum penalties of five years in federal prison on each count.
Charged were: Larry W. Bellefy, 53, of Bagley; Thomas P. Sumner, 54, Larry Good, 58, and Brian W. Holthusen, 47, all of Red Lake; Michael D. Brown, 54, no known address; Michael J. Nei, 48, of Bemidji, Jerry A. Reyes, 51, of Cass Lake; and Marc L. Lyons, 61; Frederick W. Tibbetts, 61, and Alan D. Hemme, 55, all of Bena.
The indictments allege that the suspects knowingly engaged in conduct that involved the sale and purchase of fish. Authorities estimated the value of all the fish involved to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The first indictment alleges that between July 2009 and July 2011, Bellefy, Sumner and Holthusen took fish from Red Lake without approval of the Red Lake Fisheries Association. The indictment alleges that Sumner and Holthusen obtained the fish and then sold them to Bellefy, who resold them. He owns a bar in Bagley.
The second indictment alleges that between July 2010 and July 2011, Brown and Nei netted fish from Leech Lake for commercial purposes. It states that Brown caught the fish, then sold them to Nei.
The third indictment alleges that between July 2009 and July 2011, Reyes, Lyons, Tibbetts, and Hemme also took fish from several lakes on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
That indictment claims Ryes, Lyons and Tibbetts took the fish from the lakes and then sold them to Hemme, who owns a restaurant in Bena.
The fourth indictment alleges that between July 2009 and July 2011, Good took fish from Red Lake without approval of the Red Lake Fisheries Association.
Staff writer Dennis Anderson contributed to this report. Doug Smith • 612-673-7667