Casting Light Upon the Waters
Over 150 years ago, Ojibwe Indians set out on northern Wisconsin lakes at night in birch bark canoes to spear walleye. Their torches cast light upon waters. The fish’s eyes reflected in the light, making them easier to spear in the shallow waters during the spring spawning season. When French settlers witnessed this traditional fishing activity in the open waters flecked by firelight, they named the area Lac du Flambeau, or Lake of the Torches. The Lac du Flambeau people are now one of six bands of northern Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Chippewa.
As the population of the United States increased largely due to European immigration, the Chippewa Indians were forced to cede more and more of their traditional homelands through treaties to the federal government. More than a century went by before tribes sought to have their treaty rights upheld in court.
However, during this time, tribal members continued to hunt and fish off-reservation, but were arrested or cited for violating state regulations. In the winter of 1974, two brothers, Fred and Mike Tribble, and members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe, contested the notion that the state of Wisconsin had the authority to prevent them from spearing off-reservation. It was their belief that tribal members reserved the right to hunt and fish by treaty on land ceded to the federal government. The Tribble brothers notified the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources of their intent to spear. The two brothers were promptly arrested after spearing their fish. This action led to what became known as the Voigt Case, named after the former Wisconsin DNR Director, Lester Voigt.
Together, the six Chippewa Bands joined the challenge. In 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeals determined that much like landowners may choose to retain mining rights after the sale of land, the Chippewa retained the rights to hunt, fish, and gather throughout the lands ceded in 1837 and 1842.
Many non-Indians were upset with the Voigt decision. Hysteria, violence, and racial tension became commonplace, especially at boat landings where anti-spear fishing groups would converge to protest the traditional Chippewa practice. Hostility hit a fevered pitch in the late 1980s. Recognition of traditional Indian spear fishing rights and a healing of the wounds of prejudice did not happen overnight. Time and a firm commitment on the part of tribal governments, law enforcement agencies, and the state of Wisconsin, as well as efforts from grassroots treaty-rights support groups were vital to the gradual reduction of ill-will during this unsettled time. Moreover, it was crucial to produce evidence either confirming or refuting accusations that traditional spear fishing harmed walleye populations.
During the height of the spear fishing controversy in 1990, Congress directed that a committee made up of tribal, state, and federal agency officials determine the status of the northern Wisconsin fishery in the ceded territory. In April 1991, the committee’s report titled “Casting Light Upon the Waters” stated that the fishery was healthy and unharmed from spearing. The committee had another charge: to develop fish population assessment capabilities – capabilities that would generate a fish population database to help manage the walleye fishery in ceded territory, and to inform the public on the status of the fishery.
Toward that end, a Joint Fishery Assessment Committee made up of tribal, state, and federal biologists developed standard methods to annually assess adult spawner abundance each spring; conduct creel surveys throughout the fishing season; and estimate juvenile walleye that survived into the fall. Data from these surveys provide a very clear picture of the health of the walleye population through the seasons and are used to calculate the number of harvestable walleye.
These surveys are intensive. Since 1991, biologists have completed over 1,000 adult walleye population estimates in the ceded territory waters; an average of 50 estimates per year. During that same time period, 3,700 fall juvenile surveys have been completed; an average of 220 per year. Based on the results of these surveys, biologists determined that for every walleye harvested by tribal members during the spring spearing season, 10 more walleyes are harvested by non-tribal members by hook and line during the regular fishing season. Another statistic is revealing; the Chippewa speared walleye from an average of 144 lakes per year whereas non-tribal anglers harvested walleye from an average of 859 lakes per year.
Years of collecting these data by the Joint Fishery Assessment Committee have proven that spear fishing is not harming the walleye fishery of waters in the ceded territories of northern Wisconsin. The ability of the Joint Fishery Assessment Committee to measure and monitor the walleye fishery was, and remains, instrumental in setting minds at ease. Solid population data have removed tensions between tribal and non-tribal anglers, and the misperceptions of the effect of traditional tribal spearing on the valuable fishery enjoyed by so many in the ceded territories of northern Wisconsin.
Each spring, shortly after the ice has melted on lakes within the ceded territories, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ashland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission assemble a crew of biologists to assess adult walleye spawner abundance. For five weeks their boats outfitted with electrofishing gear will cast their own light upon the water, as they work the shallow waters for walleye well into the night. (Mark Brouder).