The five are among dozens charged last spring following an illegal fish commercialization investigation

A U.S. District Court Judge dismissed charges against five Native American defendants on Monday, Nov. 25 who were arrested in a major fish poaching case on Indian reservations in northern Minnesota last spring.

The decision by Judge John Tunheim of Minneapolis was handed down in a 24-page decision concluding that the men were protected under an 1837 treaty with the Chippewa Indians that protected the right of Indian defendants to fish on their reservations. This ruling contradicted the findings of U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois, who concluded that the men had violated the federal Lacey Act, which makes it illegal to sell or buy fish in violation of any law, including Indian Tribal law.

Despite dismissing the charges against the five Native American defendants, Judge Tunheim denied a motion to dismiss the indictment of Alan Hemme, 56, formerly of Sleepy Eye, who owns the Big Fish restaurant in Bena, Minn.

Hemme was charged with aiding and abetting the sale of unlawfully acquired fish. Judge Tunheim wrote that the indictment is based on evidence that must be presented to a jury.

According to Hemme’s attorney, Scott Strouts, Hemme was charged with helping to sell walleye caught by Reyes to two undercover conservation officers posing as out-of-state buyers.

The investigation, which involved the U.S. Wildlife Service, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Leech Lake and Red Lake bands was nicknamed Operation Squarehook.

It was Minnesota’s largest case of illegal fish commercialization in two decades.

Authorities began investigating their black-market activities in July 2009. During the course of the three-year special investigation of these black-market activities, officers conducted numerous controlled purchases of illegally obtained fish. They also seized fish during the execution of several search warrants.

Besides the federal prosecutions, 21 people were charged in six counties–Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Itasca, Pennington and Polk–and 19 cases remain open. There were two guilty pleas in Clearwater County.

A special prosecutor for the Leech Lake Tribal court, said that seven individuals at Leech Lake have been charged in tribal court with violation of tribal law for improper purchase or sale of game fish, violation of netting privileges and, in one case, wasting fish.