LAKE MILLE LACS - Professional fisherman Steve Fellegy is doubling down in his efforts over tribal netting in Minnesota lakes by joining an upcoming lawsuit against the DNR over tribal net fishing in Lake Mille Lacs and planning a protest of all tribal fishing rights next month.
The conflict at the center of Fellegy's protesting is the tension between Minnesota professional sport fishers and the net fishing conducted in lakes around the Twin Cities region by members of the Ojibwe and Dakota tribes. The rights to net fish, which is banned for Minnesota residents, and the rights to fish select Minnesota lakes ahead of season are allowed under the 1805 and 1855 treaties with the U.S. government, which allows the practice for tradition and religious purposes.
Due to the ongoing tension, a lawsuit against the Minnesota DNR is brewing over when the department allows the net fishing of Lake Mille Lacs. The DNR has recently reduced the fishing limit from four fish to two fish, with the requirement that the fish measure between 18-inches and 20-inches to be keepable. This was done after it was determined that the fish population was at a 40-year low. The DNR has also obtained and agreement with eight Ojibwe bands to cut their maximum allowable walleye harvest in half.
The lawsuit group "Save Mille Lacs Sport Fishing" is blaming the dwindling and depleted fish population of Lake Mille Lacs on the fact tribal fishing of the lack occurs during the fish spawning period. They argue that the net fishing is fundamentally undermining the DNR's effort to repopulate the fish in the lake and that simply shifting the time the tribal fishers are allowed to net would have a positive impact on the problem.
Fellegy said he will be among the people filing the lawsuit. He said they will not target any issue of tribal netting rights with this lawsuit, but will instead seek to make the DNR change when the tribal groups can net fish.
"The problem has become so severe that it might not be enough to stop net fishing during spawning to save the lake. The DNR might also have to enact some comprehensive recovery plan," said Fellegy. "We're dangerously close to having to end fishing altogether for anglers, to save the lake."
He said there is no current timeline when the lawsuit will be filed, since the filer are first fundraising $50,000 for the cost of the lawsuit.
Further information on the coming lawsuit can be found at the group's website, www.savemillelacssportfishing.org/.
Fellegy himself also objects to treaty rights on principal as a violation of equal protection laws. He is still planning his own protest by illegally net fishing in Lake Bemidji on May 14. He is seeking to receive a fishing violation ticket from the DNR so he can challenge it.
The action is a response to protest illegal net fishing by tribal organizations over the last few years in Lake Bemidji, which is not covered by treaty rights. The tribal organizations were also seeking to be ticketed, so they could bring court action arguing they did have rights to fish the lake. The DNR responded by confiscating their nets and captured fish, but did not ticket any of the protesters. Tribal and sport fishing organizations have accused the State of Minnesota for responding in this manner to avoid a massive, costly legal battle over treaty rights.
Fellegy previously attempted the same protest as he is planning for next month, and received a ticket for his actions for fishing ahead of season in Lake Mille Lacs. However, his challenge was thrown out for occurring in another county and not in the same manner of action, which would be required for unequal treatment.
He is fishing with nets one day after fishing opener this year to avoid having penalties on his fishing rights for having two violations in three year. He will instead be focusing on net fishing instead of fishing out of season for this effort.
He has a website at www.casstoday.com.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.