After a three-year investigation by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 21 non-tribal residents have or will be charged in the state's largest case of illegal fish commercialization in two decades.
According to a news release issued Monday, an investigation called "Operation Squarehook" involved the illegal purchases and sales of a significant amount of walleye and other game fish taken from Minnesota's most popular fishing lakes.
The suspects are expected to face up to 35 misdemeanor and six gross misdemeanor charges in six northern Minnesota counties. If convicted, the charges carry tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
The fish were sold in a competitive black market for $1.50 to $3 per pound, far less than the $11 to $17 per pound for legal walleye, typically from Canada, sold in grocery stores.
DNR officers also documented hundreds of other unwanted fish, such as northern pike, suckers and whitefish being thrown away and wasted because they weren’t as highly prized as walleye.
The investigation began with Red Lake and Leech Lake tribal members who legally netted or angled game fish, but illegally sold them to other individuals. Both tribal and nontribal members are being charged. Red Lake and Leech Lake authorities are filing charges against tribal members in tribal court.
Last week, four federal indictments were filed against 10 tribal individuals in addition to the state charges.
“The investigation should serve notice that the illegal commercialization of walleye and waste of game fish will not be tolerated in Minnesota,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
"Operation Squarehook" is the largest poaching case in the state since 1993, when a major walleye-selling ring involving Red Lake tribal members was busted by the DNR. The Star Tribune reports that illegal activity contributed to the collapse of the Red Lake walleye fishery, which has since been restored.