Is the sturgeon population in the Rainy River/Lake of the Woods system strong enough to withstand the removal of 200 immature fish a year?
Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Natural Resources here are saying “yes" but the cry from Rainy River First Nations is a resounding "no.”
The DNR dropped gill nets in Rainy River from Birchdale down to Four Mile Bay on Lake of the Woods last Wednesday. They were taken out Monday and yesterday, along with 200 sturgeon ranging in size from 18-36 inches.
The sturgeon are destined for Detroit Lake and the Ottertail River, tributaries of the Red River, in hopes of reintroducing the fish to the system there. And they'll be taking another 200 fish a annually out of Rainy River for another four years.
But restocking the Red River might come at the cost of depleting the local population, argued Chief Jim Leonard of the Rainy River First Nations band.
“We want to ensure the population here is maintained and protected,” he said Friday, noting the band has put a self-imposed moratorium on commercially fishing its share of the sturgeon stock from the river.
“Here we are trying to work on the river and they're taking fish out," he said. "It doesn't make sense.”
Chief Leonard was informed of the DNR's fishing project by Ralph Nelson of Birchdale last Friday afternoon, who also strongly disagreed with removing the fish.
By 4 p.m., Chief Leonard and several band members launched boats from Barwick—intent on finding any gill nets and destroying them.
“I didn't have to coerce them," he remarked. ”They're here because they want to protect the fish. We'll cut the ends or we'll pull the nets out of the water if we find any.
“I told the guys we may have to go to jail tonight,” he added.
But the net hunters came home empty-handed after combing the river from Barwick to Pinewood. Nelson said he saw the DNR lift some nets out earlier Friday.
Nelson also has tried to stop the netting from his side of the border, contacting his local state representatives. And he said he's not the only one hot under the collar over the loss of the fish.
“There's a lot of people who disagree with it here," he claimed. "They're netting the sturgeon to beat hell. I think it stinks.”
But fisheries superintendent Mike Larson of the DNR in Baudette, who helped with the relocation project, said the impact of last week's gill-netting will be minimal.
“We consider the Rainy River-Lake of the Woods fish stock as a recovery area," he said. "The Rainy River stock is probably the best population in Minnesota.”
Larson also sits on the Lake Sturgeon Steering Committee as a part of the Ontario-Minnesota Border Waters Committee. He said the local sturgeon are probably the best-suited genetically to restock the Red River.
He also said having another stock of Rainy River sturgeon in a nearby river system could be advantageous.
“If there's another genetic stock in another system and if there's a catastrophe, we can restock our system from there,” he explained.
MNR biologist John Vandenbroeck, who also sits on the sturgeon committee, agreed the removal of the fish is not a biological hazard.
“There was a fairly comprehensive study done in the late '80s early '90s," he said. ”It appears to indicate [the sturgeon] have had significant year classes repeated since the mid-70s.
“It suggests recovery," Vandenbroeck added. "They're spawning successfully and their numbers are reproducing.”
Vandenbroeck noted the weight of the sturgeon removed, about 600 pounds altogether, was just a small portion of the 7,600 sturgeon target harvest allocated to Minnesota.
And since Minnesota is deducting the netted sturgeon from its own annual portion of fish, they didn't need anyone else's permission to do so.
But the DNR can expect a fight from both sides of the border before it tries to relocate another 200 sturgeon from Rainy River next year.
“I don't want them to pull any fish out,” Nelson said.
“The fish is a part of our cultural heritage," Chief Leonard argued. "There was millions and million of pounds here before. It's something here for us to protect.”