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Forum News Service, Published April 15 2013

21 charged in biggest walleye poaching case in two decades

Authorities in Minnesota are bringing criminal charges against 21 people in the largest case of commercialized poaching of fish in the state in at least 22 years.

The charges follow at three-year special investigation into the illegal sale and dumping of thousands of game fish in north-central and northwestern Minnesota.

The investigation, known as Operation Squarehook, involved about 60 officers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and tribal authorities from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

The suspects are facing up to 35 misdemeanor and six gross misdemeanor state charges in six counties in northern Minnesota. Total state fines are expected in the tens of thousands of dollars. Cases have been presented to state county attorneys for prosecution; some individuals have been charged or have already paid fines.

The charges involve both illegal purchases and sales of the game fish, primarily walleye, taken from some of Minnesota’s most popular fishing lakes, including Cass, Leech, Red and Winnibigoshish lakes on the Red Lake or Leech Lake Indian reservations.

“This is a troubling case because it involved large numbers of people and a significant number of fish being illegally bought and sold,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “The investigation should serve notice that the illegal commercialization of walleye and waste of game fish will not be tolerated in Minnesota.”

Today’s announcement follows Wednesday’s news that federal prosecutors had filed indictments against 10 people accused with illegally poaching and marketing hundreds of thousands of dollars in walleye and other protected fish on the Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian reservations. The indictments charged the men with one count of transportation, sale and purchase of fish taken in violation of the Lacey Act. If convicted, each defendant faces a potential maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.

The state investigation began with Red Lake and Leech Lake tribal members who legally netted or angled game fish, but illegally sold them to other individuals. During the investigation, DNR officers documented the suspects buying and selling thousands of walleye. They also documented hundreds of other unwanted fish, such as northern pike, being thrown away.

The illegal fish were of various sizes, from small to trophy specimens. In one case, a trophy muskie was sold for mounting.

Red Lake and Leech Lake authorities are filing charges against tribal members in tribal court. The 21 individuals facing state charges are nontribal members who illegally purchased or sold fish. In some cases, those individuals were intermediaries who purchased fish from tribal members and sold them to other individuals.

“A significant problem is the number of people who knowingly buy illegal fish,” said Col. Jim Konrad, director of the DNR’s Enforcement Division. “The key to stopping this illegal commercialization of our game fish is stopping the demand.”

State charges are being pursued or have been filed by county attorneys in Clearwater, Polk, Itasca, Cass, Pennington and Beltrami counties. The illegal sale and purchase of game fish is a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, depending upon the value of the fish involved.

The illegal sale or purchase of less than $50 of game fish is a state misdemeanor and punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and up to 90 days of jail. The illegal sale or purchase of more than $50 of game fish is a gross misdemeanor with a minimum fine of $100 and a maximum fine of $3,000 and up to a year in jail.

This is the largest case of its sort in Minnesota since 1993, when 45 Minnesotans were charged with criminal conspiracy to illegally transport, take, sell and buy walleye from Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian reservations. The sting operation, started in 1991, was known as Operation Can-Am. The defendants were found guilty of felony and misdemeanor charges.