Nearly 40 people face charges after a large operation designated “Operation Squarehook” busted a Minnesota walleye poaching ring. According to the Star Tribune, nearly 60 wildlife officials, federal employees, and law enforcement officers worked on the case over a period of three years. The poachers targeted Leech, Winnibigoshish, Cass, and Red lakes, some of the the state’s prime fishing real estate. The operation was loosely organized and dealt in black market walleye meat, selling for around $2 a pound. Other fish that couldn’t be sold were quickly dumped. Officials are still estimating the amount of fish poached.
“Those fish were just wasted,’’ said Jim Konrad of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Piles of rotting fish such as northern pike were discovered by DNR employees and led to breakthroughs in the case. The majority of the fish were sold to regular customers such as restaurants and taverns, whose owners also face charges. According to DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr, it’s the biggest case he’s seen in 20 years.
Some of the poachers belonged to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who were taking advantage of subsistence angling privileges. The Band specifically forbids commercial sales of walleye outside of a processor, which the band owns.
“This is a troubling case because it involved large numbers of people and a significant number of fish being illegally bought and sold,” said Landwehr. “The investigation should serve notice that the illegal commercialization of walleye and waste of game fish will not be tolerated in Minnesota.”
While this type of poaching falls under misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors, which can be punishable by a $500-$3,000 in fines and up to a year in jail, strict federal charges have been brought against the poachers due to alleged violations of the Lacey Act.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service