Rainy River First Nations has three big trophies from their last trip out on the river but they’re not fish—they’re Minnesota Department of Natural Resources nets.
An anonymous tip from someone they believe was in Rainy River left a message on the band office’s voice-mail last Wednesday night claiming they saw DNR nets floating in the river near the Baudette airport.
By 9 a.m. Thursday, Chief Jim Leonard, along with Greg Bombay and Craig Jourdain, had launched their boat from the dock at Rainy River. About 500 feet north of the CNR rail bridge, they found the nets.
They pulled three nets out of the river, all of them empty. A fourth net was being manned by a DNR boat.
“They were lifting that fourth one out—I could see fish in there, too,” noted Bombay.
“I’m sure there would have been fish in [the captured] nets, too," he added. "They must have been checked earlier.”
The DNR started pulling sturgeon out of the river two weeks ago (it’s looking to take 200 a year for five years) as part of an effort to restock the Red River and its tributaries. Although the DNR started pulling up nets last Monday and Tuesday, a few remained in the water for Chief Leonard and his crew to find.
DNR area fisheries supervisor Mike Larson in Baudette, who also sits on the lake sturgeon sub-committee of the Ontario-Minnesota Border Waters Committee, said the river and lake’s fish population easily could withstand the removal of any immature sturgeon they took out.
“We’ve collected 178 sturgeon,” he said, noting they had to pull their remaining nets due to a large number of walleye and other game-fish moving into the river.
Larson claimed Rainy River sturgeon were the closest, genetically speaking, to the large fish that used to live in the Red River. He also argued there were several benefits to having another stock of Rainy River sturgeon nearby in case the local river system suffered a catastrophe.
But Chief Leonard said his band should have been consulted before the fish were taken out, especially considering its attempts to build up the sturgeon population in Rainy River over the past few years.
“I don’t think there’s enough research being done,” he said, noting he still didn’t believe the river’s sturgeon have rebounded fully enough.
“We have no problem with boats on the river fishing, we have a problem with the nets," he said. ”All the fisherman on the river, the ones we’ve talked to, are upset.
“It’s hurting the fish.”
The next step lies with the DNR. Larson said the removal of the nets is being viewed as a criminal act and the DNR is trying to get them back.
And Larson noted the whole mishap seems to involve a great deal of miscommunication between the two groups—a miscommunication he hoped they could clear up.
But until the lines of communication are open, Chief Leonard said he and his band won’t tolerate any more nets.
“If we were able to work with them, we might have worked something out," he remarked. ”At this point, we’ll wait for the community to inform us [of nets] and that’s on both sides of the river.
“We’ll be out there as long as they are,” he stressed.