Operation Squarehook is a three-year cooperative special investigation involving approximately 60 officers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. The DNR began the investigation in March 2010 and focused primarily on the illegal commercialization and wanton waste of protected game fish in north-central and northwestern Minnesota.
Twenty-one suspects are facing up to 35 misdemeanor and six gross misdemeanor state charges in six counties of northern Minnesota involving the sale or purchase of game fish. Cases have been presented to state county attorneys for their review. At least two defendants have pleaded guilty and paid fines.
This is a significant case because of the number of people involved and the large number of jurisdictions and agencies that were involved in addressing the illegal commercialization of wildlife within Minnesota.
The fish were taken from Cass, Leech, Red Lake and Winnibigoshish lakes, on the Red Lake or Leech Lake Indian reservations. State charges are expected to be filed or have been filed in Clearwater, Polk, Itasca, Cass, Pennington and Beltrami counties.
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. Tribal codes govern whether band members can fish or net for subsistence purposes. The Red Lake Band allows subsistence angling for walleye; the Leech Lake Band allows for subsistence angling or netting for walleye.
In Minnesota, it is illegal to sell or buy game fish. The 21 individuals facing state charges are nontribal members who illegally purchased or sold fish. In some cases, those nontribal individuals were “intermediaries” who purchased fish from tribal members and sold them to other individuals.
Thousands, and mostly walleye. Walleye were bought and sold by the fillet or individual fish. Hundreds of unwanted fish, including northern pike, were illegally dumped and wasted because they were not viewed as being as valuable as walleye. Some suspects will face misdemeanor charges for this violation known as “wanton waste.”
Yes. On April 10, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis announced four indictments against 10 individuals. Those defendants are being charged with federal Lacey Act violations because fish were legally caught on Indian reservations, but illegally transported and sold off reservation. Tribal authorities will also charge members in tribal court for illegally selling fish.
Under Minnesota state statute, the sale or purchase of less than $50 of game fish is a state misdemeanor and punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and/or up to 90 days of jail. The 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/or up to a year in jail.
The defendants facing federal Lacey Act violations face a potential maximum penalty of five years in federal prison on each count, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis.
The owners or employees of some businesses were involved in the state investigation, but their names cannot be released because they have not been charged yet. There is no evidence fish were sold as meals at any businesses.
The information came through the Turn in Poachers (TIP) hotline and intelligence developed by various investigators and DNR enforcement officers. The problem appears to have been ongoing over the years, based on public complaints and conservation officer observations. The TIP Hotline is 1-800-652-9093.
Fish were sold for between $1.50 and $3 per pound, far less than the $11 to $17 per pound for legal walleye (typically from Canada) sold in grocery stores. Officers discovered a competitive black market and a significant supply of purchasable fish.
Without willing purchasers, there is no incentive to take fish for illegal sales. It starts with the demand side of the transaction by people who illegally and knowingly buy fish. The individuals who are being charged knowingly chose to ignore state and tribal law.
The fish are being held as evidence and will be disposed of after final disposition of charges. Bands can request the return of seized fish involved in tribal prosecutions.
Operation Squarehook was initiated by former DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten and Col. Jim Konrad, the DNR’s law Enforcement Division Director, beginning in March 2010. Commissioner Tom Landwehr continued the investigation.
That is difficult to determine because fish populations are variable, but this illegal activity clearly removed fish from lakes that could have been caught legally and utilized by state anglers and tribal fishers.
In 1993, 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.