MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A U.S. District Court judge is dismissing charges against five Native American defendants who were accused of poaching walleye from northern Minnesota lakes and selling them on the black market.
The five are among the dozens of people charged last spring following an extensive undercover operation by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and tribal fish and game agents. The two-year sting was code named “Operation Squarehook,” in reference to the nets used to capture large numbers of game fish.
Ten Native American defendants are fighting federal indictments, saying the alleged illegal fishing was done on reservation waters and therefore protected under an 1837 Indian treaty.
On Monday, District Court Judge John Tunheim agreed with the interpretation of that treaty and decided to dismiss federal indictments against five of the defendants.
Investigators initially busted more than 30 people around Red, Leech, Winnibigoshish and Cass lakes in April 2013 for illegally netting and then selling the walleye on the black market. Commercializing of fish and game is strictly prohibited under the federal Lacey Act.
This story got a great deal of attention last spring when the Minnesota DNR held a news conference to announced the break-up of what was called “the largest fish poaching ring in decades.”
But now, some of the federal cases have been dismissed.
“This is such a complicated area of law,” said attorney Robert Richman.
Her presents two of the defendants charged with selling their catches from within the Red Lake reservation.
The defendants are charged with the same violation, but their cases were assigned to a different U.S. District Court judge, Richard Kyle.
“This is a practice that has been handed down from generation to generation in order to support themselves,” Richman says.
He added that the treaty was written to protect Native American’s ability for subsistence fishing, in a part of the region where jobs are scarce and poverty is deep.
But Kyle sees the treaty differently. Two weeks ago the judge issued a two-page memo agreeing with the recommendation handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois in Duluth.
Brisbois believes that the 1837 treaty does not exclude Native Americans from terms outlined in the federal Lacy Act, which prohibits the commercializing of game fish.
“Those cases are still awaiting trial, even though they have the same claim and same allegations against them as with respect to the other defendants,” Richman said.
Tunheim’s ruling affects only five of the 10 defendants facing the federal indictments in the four cases before the court.
The DNR says 13 other defendants have already been convicted of violating state laws, with another 12 people awaiting charges or with court hearings pending.