Red Lake walleye, an edible freshwater fish, have been culturally and economically important to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians for more than a century. About 85% of the Red Lake lies within the boundaries of the Red Lake Indian Reservation, and is entirely under the jurisdiction of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians; the remaining 15% is owned and controlled by the State of Minnesota. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians have operated a commercial fishery on the Red Lakes since 1917, when it was begun during World War One to provide a source of fresh fish for Minnesota citizens. It is the only commercial walleye fishery, and one of the largest freshwater commercial fisheries in the United States. Throughout the years, the fishery supported several hundred fishers and their families on the reservation, and has been important to the off-reservation economy as well. The Red Lakes fishery was the only Indian fishery regulated by the Secretary of the Interior.
In the mid-1990s, populations of walleye collapsed due primarily to commercial and angler over-harvest. The Tribe faced a challenge experienced in other commercial fisheries around the world: how could they replenish this culturally and economically vital resource?
The significance of this recovery project for Red Lake Chippewa sovereignty has been significant. Since the 1930s, the Red Lakes commercial fishery has been governed by the Secretary of Interior; the Tribal Council generally had no say in the management of the fishery in terms of quota and effort. As fishery conditions deteriorated, the Tribal Council became more and more concerned about the health of Red Lakes fish populations, leading the tribe to develop its own fisheries assessment program in 1987. Information gathered by tribal assessment crews showed that the walleye population was under severe stress, and that aggressive action was needed to restore the population. The Tribal Council determined that it could not rely on the Secretary of the Interior to effectively manage the Red Lakes walleye population; in 1997, the Tribal Chairman approached the State of Minnesota to undertake a joint recovery effort. These self-governance actions, despite existing federal regulations, have placed the tribal government in control of the Red Lakes walleye rehabilitation, with the assistance of its partners.
Following the meeting, in early 1997, between Red Lake Band Tribal Chairman Bobby Whitefeather and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Rod Sando, the association of Red Lake commercial fishers voted overwhelmingly to close their entire 1997 commercial fishing season for the first time in its history. The Red Lake Tribal Council instituted a complete moratorium on walleye harvest until recovery was achieved, and further discussions between the Red Lake Band and the State of Minnesota led to the formation of a technical committee charged with developing a plan to restore Red Lakes walleye populations.
The Red Lakes Walleye Recovery Plan included a short-term (recovery) phase and a long-term (sustainable) phase. Key components of the Recovery phase included a lake-wide no kill/no possession rule on walleye, an inter-agency assessment program, and a short-term stocking program intended to increase the speed of recovery. Key components of the sustainable phase included resumption of walleye harvest only when mature female biomass exceeds a predetermined density for three consecutive years.
The Red Lakes Fisheries Technical Committee operates under a consensus arrangement; its membership includes tribal commercial fishers, tribal conservation staff, federal agency staff, state conservation staff, and University of Minnesota experts, among others. The Committee faced a daunting task - undertaking one of the largest freshwater fish species recovery programs in America, and at the same time, addressing the concerns of tribal and state governments and their constituents. In the six years since the implementation of the recovery plan, success has been remarkable. As part of the effort, about 105 million walleye fry were stocked in the Red Lakes in 1999, 2001, and 2003. These efforts have resulted in the three largest walleye year classes in at least 15 years. In addition, the moratorium on walleye harvest has resulted in enhancement of the existing walleye population. There are now more walleye in the Red Lakes than at any time in the past 15 years. Because of this success, fishing for walleye in the Red Lakes resumed in May of 2006.