As climate change alters lakes, tribes and conservationists fight for the future of spearfishing

HAYWARD, Wis. (AP) – Cold nights on northern Wisconsin’s Chippewa Stream don’t deter 15-year-old spearfisher Gabe Bisonette. He has been learning the Ojibwe practice for so long now that he can barely convey the sight to his dad when his headlamp illuminates the scene of his quarry.

With a long spear at the ready, Gabe throws the pole down and hits the flowing water. He flicks the pole through the air as he practices — the hardest part, he says, is keeping the walleye on the spear while swinging — then slides the catch into the boat with a boar.

Ojibwe and other Indigenous peoples are fighting to keep this way of life alive. As a result of warming waters, increasingly variable seasonal changes and lakeshore development, the number of dams in some lakes is declining. The loss of the species would mean a source of food for community members, a sovereign right to fish, and a deep connection with tradition and nature. Many are hopeful that they will be able to continue this tradition in the future with the help of science and proper management, but they are also concerned about the changes that are already happening.

“We’ve seen things here in the last few years that I’ve never seen before,” said Brian Bisonette, Gabe’s uncle and director of conservation for the Lac Courte Oreilles Department of Conservation. “It worries me, what I have seen in my life, what will my grandson see in his life?”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series on how tribes and Indigenous communities are dealing with and responding to climate change.


Bisonette described how former leaders, recognizing the need to have enough food to survive in their homeland, secured the right to hunt, fish and gather wild rice in certain areas as part of ceded 19th century treaties land for settlers.

But much later, the state of Wisconsin cut off the tribes’ treaty rights and in some cases even arrested tribal members for participating in activities central to their heritage. Eventually a 1983 Supreme Court decision affirmed the rights of the Ojibwe people, but opposition grew. Angry and ill-informed locals showed up at lakes to harass tribal people. They slashed tires, shouted racial slurs and shot at spearfishers.

Today, lifeguards work at every boat landing to keep people safe, but incidents still happen from time to time. Bisonette can laugh at the notion of people screaming “go back to where you came from” at the Natives, but it still carries the weight of past events. “It would be scary for anybody,” he said. “You like to think that time brings everything together, but it still doesn’t.”

Now, with the importance of that history in mind, tribes and local conservation teams are finding ways to keep walleye and the spearing tradition alive. Spearers are required to obtain permits that limit the number of fish they can take, and some lakes are “stocked,” meaning that most of the fish population is born in a hatchery and released into the lake. But the goal in many cases is still to boost natural reproduction.

“Whether it’s tribal or non-tribal, this is a concern for all of us,” Bisonette said.

Endangered lake ecosystems

On another inland lake, Lac Courte Oreilles, Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Max Wolter and regional team supervisor Angelena Sikora are also looking for walleye.

They take a motorboat out to nets strategically placed at various points along the shore, and Sikora eagerly places each walleye or crappie on the measuring surface to record its size and sex. If it’s a newcomer, she tags it by clipping a fin, then throws it back.

The goal is an accurate picture of inland lake fish populations, which the DNR collects in partnership with tribal conservation partners and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Pooling their data, experts from each group are noticing signs of change.

“It’s not that the adult walleye are just dying, it’s because the amount of reproduction is not happening at the same levels as it used to be, especially in certain bodies of water,” Wolter said. GLIFWC communications director Charlie Rasmussen said even when young walleye do hatch, they have a harder time surviving to adulthood.

Kelly Martin, who has been spearfishing with his family for many years now, sees changes firsthand. This year he was surprised by the start of the season, which came early because there was no ice on the lake this winter. Wolter explained that winters are becoming wildly inconsistent in terms of length and temperature, and climate change is making some lakes more vulnerable due to long periods of drought that slow down the flow of river flows, which negatively affects walleye habitat. which do better in murkier water.

Martin has seen changes in waters due to other factors such as development as well. After the pandemic, in his work as a roofing contractor, he saw business skyrocket on the lakeside homes that attract remote workers and tourists alike.

“You want to make sure that this lake remains sustainable for everyone, for many years to come.” he said. “My great-great-great-grandchildren, I want them to be able to have their time with their family and make their stories.”

The DNR updated its conservation plan for walleye in 2022, with a focus on climate change. And in January 2023, GLIFWC released the updated version of its climate change vulnerability assessment, a work seven years in the making, driven primarily by what they were hearing from tribal members about changes they were experiencing watching them.

“That knowledge of tribal elders seems to be more widely accepted,” and science is supporting and learning from Indigenous knowledge, Rasmussen said.

The tribes are the first to adapt

Many of the Northern Wisconsin tribal members have watched the influx of people into their small community, reaching the promise of discovering “climate proof” thanks to the abundant supply of fresh water, relative safety from sea level rise and warm-but-still-cold. winter.

But they are not those newcomers and summer tourists who depend on nature for food, and they are not the ones who fight for traditions that go back generations. As the inland lakes warm with climate change, tribal members are experiencing the effects first hand.

That’s why the tribes’ intimate knowledge of the lakes, passed down through the generations, motivates Bisonette and others who have invested in spearfishing to continue fighting to do so.

“That’s one thing for all Native populations, they want to adapt,” Bisonette said.

So far, with conservation efforts keeping the population intact, Martin, whose Ojibwe name Giiwitayaanimad means “wind blowing around him,” is spearing enough fish to help feed the community’s elders. scales, carefully make each cut with a knife and wash down the flesh in a bucket ‘ stories are worthless, he says.

“Some of these people, that’s how they grew up. This is her life, doing this,” Martin said. “I hope I will be like that. Someone will remember me.”


Follow Melina Walling on X at @MelinaWalling and John Locher on Instagram at @locherphoto


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