Wisconsin walleye fishing could be limited by tribal spearing plans
Joe Bates of the Bad River band of Chippewa Indians spears a walleye on High Lake in Vilas County.
The six bands of Chippewa in northern Wisconsin have declared intentions to spear a near-record number of walleyes during the annual spring harvest.
The high declaration by the Lac du Flambeau band will terminate an agreement it has had with the state since 1997.
The tribes Friday submitted their declaration to spear 59,399 walleyes in off-reservation lakes. The declarations by band were Bad River 5,609 walleyes; Lac Courte Oreilles 5,879; Lac du Flambeau 24,283; Mole Lake 15,060; Red Cliff 2,194; and St. Croix 6,374.
After calculating the potential impact to the lakes' walleye populations, the Department of Natural Resources on Monday announced the sport bag limits would be reduced to one fish on 197 lakes, two fish on 331 lakes and three fish on seven lakes.
The standard daily sport bag limit on Wisconsin waters is five walleyes.
A DNR statement Monday acknowledged the Chippewa tribes are acting lawfully within their treaty rights.
However this year's "drastic increase in lakes named at a one-walleye bag limit is significant, unprecedented and a challenge to long-standing partnerships," DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said.
The high walleye declarations were anticipated by many after a year in which the relationship between the state and tribes has become increasingly strained. The tribes strongly opposed the state's wolf hunting and trapping season, held for the first time in 2012, as well as recent legislation paving the way for an iron mine upstream from the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin.
Several tribal spokesmen have pointed to a lack of consultation in recent years between the state and tribes on natural resource issues, including the wolf hunt. By law, the tribes must be consulted on natural resource issues in the ceded territory.
The 59,399 walleyes declared this year is second only to 2010, when the tribes declared 59,659, according to DNR records.
The tribes and DNR have used a system of declarations and adjusted bag limits since the late 1980s. The DNR makes preliminary adjustments based on the declarations. After the actual spearing harvest is recorded, bag limits may be adjusted again, typically in May.
The reductions are designed to keep the total annual catch to less than 35% of the adult walleye population.
Last year the tribes declared 54,057 walleyes but actually speared 32,321, according to DNR records.
The Chippewa tribes are entitled to hunt, fish and gather in the ceded territory, about the northern third of Wisconsin.
The treaty rights were affirmed in the Voigt case in 1983. Since the mid-1980s, the tribes have exercised their right to take walleyes and other fish by spearing.
The annual harvest by the tribes is a fraction of the total harvest from lakes in the ceded territory. According to DNR estimates, 260,000 to 300,000 walleye were harvested annually (2008-'12) by sport anglers from lakes declared in the ceded territory.
But since it results in reduced bag limits for sport anglers, tribal spearing has upset many fishermen, business owners and others and led to angry protests at boat landings in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Time and the 1997 agreement helped reduce tensions. Spearing has occurred in relative peace during the last 15 years.
While the total number of lakes declared is similar to past years, the percentage declared at less than a three-fish bag limit is much higher than usual.
Between 1997 and 2012, no more than 10 lakes had been declared at a one-walleye bag limit in a given year. This year the number reached 197.
The Lac du Flambeau have declared and speared the most walleyes over the years, including 48% of the total in 2012.
In 1997 the band agreed to limit its take of walleyes in exchange for the ability to sell fishing, ATV and snowmobile licenses. The agreement called on the tribe to allow at least a three-walleyes-per-day bag limit on lakes it speared.
As part of this year's declarations, the Lac du Flambeau named 232 of their 233 lakes at a two-fish daily bag limit. The tribe's "unprecedented change in declarations effectively terminated the 16-year agreement," according to the DNR.
The tribe will lose an $84,500 payment from the state and revenue from licenses sales as a result of withdrawing from the agreement.
Tribal authorities were not available for comment Monday afternoon.
State and local officials are concerned about the impact reduced sport bag limits have on tourism.
As part of its statement, the DNR said over the coming weeks it "aims to work with the tribes in an effort to negotiate a reduction in their declarations."
With most waters in the ceded territory covered with ice, open-water spearing will be limited for at least the next several weeks.