"I'm not saying it's right, but guys are talking vigilante groups," said Bill Griffin, a member of a non-native group that has raised up to $200,000 and spent countless volunteer hours to restock Dauphin Lake, which was virtually dead from overfishing in the 1970s.
"All people are asking is for the government to stop this thing before it goes too far," said Griffin, a past-president with the Intermountain Sport Fishing Enhancement Group.
Up to 10 nets, as long as 200 metres each, were ripped out of the lake this week by individuals who hooked them to a pickup-truck hitch and drove off. Another three were ripped out one night a week ago, and one or two have been torn out on several other nights.
Manitoba Conservation has given chase to some vehicles, but no individuals have been caught.
"Some people think this will solve things. That couldn't be further from the truth," said Bob Enns, Manitoba Conservation director for western Manitoba.
Both Manitoba Conservation and RCMP are investigating.
Similar acts of vandalism have occurred at Lake of the Prairies, about an hour's drive west of Dauphin Lake. A fishing net worth about $200 was burned at a rally attended by more than 400 angry anglers at Lake of the Prairies in January.
Enns maintained that an interim solution to protect fish stocks is imminent. Manitoba Conservation Minister Oscar Lathlin was planning to hold a press conference in Dauphin as early as today to announce the interim solution, but that isn't certain any more.
Enns said the government is looking to an interim solution because finding a permanent agreement is taking too much time and fish stocks need to be protected. "We have to move quickly. Something will be happening in the next short while."
First nation chiefs from West Region Tribal Council huddled with conservation officials here on Tuesday to hammer out an agreement.
"The chiefs would like to come up with something in the next couple days," said Harvey Nepinak, adviser to the WRTC chiefs. Nepinak said Lathlin had set a deadline of today for an agreement, but he wasn't sure that will be met.
In a full-page ad that ran recently in the Dauphin Herald, the tribal council maintained it wants to reach a compromise solution that will protect the fish stocks in both Dauphin Lake and nearby Lake of the Prairies, where another dispute between native and non-native fishermen is festering.
However, the ad emphasized that treaties exempt first nation people from normal provincial fishing regulations. The tribal council said it wants to be part of a co-management agreement for the lake.
Up to 50 nets are being placed in Dauphin Lake daily by aboriginal fishermen associated with nearby Pine Creek and Valley River first nations. Manitoba Conservation estimated recently that 130,000 pounds of pickerel were removed from the lake last year. The department maintains 100,000 pounds is the maximum that can be removed from the lake to sustain fish levels.
The Intermountain sport fishers maintain the government's figures are conservative, and estimate that at least 160,000 pounds were taken out of the lake last year. "Our estimate is (the net fishermen) are taking out 2,000 pounds per day," Griffin said.
Five aboriginal fishermen who net-fished on Dauphin Lake are charged with violating provincial fishing regulations, including selling the fish commercially to the Freshwater Fish Marketing Board in Winnipegosis. However, people continue to net-fish the lake. The charged native fishermen are expected to argue that catching the fish is within their treaty rights.
The five fishermen appeared in Dauphin court on Tuesday. Their cases were remanded until March 12 for two fishermen, and March 26 for others.
Anglers say the net fishing, which has been ongoing for at least three years, has already resulted in a drop in angler catches. "This winter has been the worst for fishing in 10 years," said Bill Zaporzan, who ice-fishes once a week on the lake.
Some of the aboriginal fishing nets are placed right next to angler ice-fishing huts. "I think they set their nets up next to the shacks to aggravate people," said Griffin.
On Dauphin Lake, fishing organizations voluntarily agreed to lower fishing limits to four pickerel, from six, to keep fish stocks sustainable.
Two years of overfishing was all it took to declare Dauphin Lake a virtually dead lake in the 1970s. Even just 10 years ago, the only fish remaining in the lake were northern pike. Restocking efforts by local fishermen have replenished pickerel numbers to the point where it is now a prime pickerel-fishing lake.
The 50 nets in the lake owned by aboriginal fishermen are removing up to 80 fish each per day, or about 2,000 pounds. That works out to about $5,000 per day, said Don Porter, an executive member with the Dauphin Fish and Wildlife Association.
"You can't tell me that's just for their own subsistence," said Porter.
Right to fish
He was referring to the treaties that say first nation people have the right to fish for their own table use. However, a Supreme Court decision in British Columbia has broadened that definition, replacing fishing for "subsistence" with the phrase fishing for "a moderate livelihood." That wording may be where a court challenge will be decided.
Fishermen here point to the Sparrow vs. the Queen ruling in the Supreme Court that maintained treaty rights are not absolute rights, and governments still have the right to protect lakes for conservation purposes. The ruling is used by the provincial government in Alberta to impose fishing restrictions.
The previous Manitoba government developed regulations to conserve fish stocks on Dauphin Lake but they have not been enforced. Lathlin has been trying to draft a co-management agreement between the anglers and local first nations, represented by the West Region Tribal Council.
"Right now, the first nations people who are signatories to treaties have a treaty right to fish for domestic purposes and the provision under the treaty doesn't say how much you should harvest or the method by which you should have harvest, so there's no way I can stop anybody," Lathlin told the Russell Banner newspaper in a recent interview.
Sport fishermen such as Griffin say they don't disagree with an aboriginal person's right to fish for the table but they maintain the net fishermen are commercial fishing.
Dauphin Lake is about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, and only about 15 kilometres outside the City of Dauphin.