Anglers, conservationists file objections to proposed Great Lakes Consent Decree

Anglers and conservationists fighting to keep expanded gillnets out of the Great Lakes filed objections to a proposed Consent Decree on Jan. 20.

The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources (CPMR) filed its objections to the proposed decree while a pending appeal to its denial of intervenor status in the negotiations is being weighed in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The State of Michigan, United States of America and four of the five sovereign Tribal nations with fishing rights in the northern Great Lakes submitted the proposed decree to a Michigan federal court in December. A consent decree governs the balance of Tribal commercial fishing and state-licensed recreational fishing under a Treaty signed in 1836 — primarily as they relate to whitefish, lake trout, walleye and yellow perch, but including all species of fish.

In 2000, the last time a consent decree was adopted, recreational anglers were allocated just over 40% of the available fish stocks in the treaty waters. More than $14 Million of taxpayer money was also spent to convert several large tribal fishing operations from nonselective gillnets to trap nets, which allow recreational species, such as lake trout, to be returned to the water alive. In the proposed decree, it’s estimated that state-licensed anglers will end up with roughly 30% or less of the fishery allocated to them and the goal of converting gillnets to trap nets has been abandoned.

Gillnets are indiscriminate and lethal. A fish swims through the net, is trapped by its gills and then dies. Trap nets allow bycatch, or fish not intended to be caught, to be released and have a lower mortality rate. The State of Michigan outlawed gillnets for its state-licensed commercial fishers in the 1960s, realizing the devastating impact on the lake trout and (then) the newly introduced salmon population. Gillnets are being phased out worldwide due to their nonselective nature.

The Michigan DNR agreeing to the allowance of expanded gillnetting in popular recreational fishing areas will be devastating for recreational anglers, said Tony Radjenovich, CPMR President.

“We have seen what happens when gillnets are placed in small bays and river mouths, and we have spent decades trying to recover the fish from those mistakes,” Radjenovich said. “Rather than working toward a biologically-sound partnership, the Michigan DNR has decided that its priorities are not recreational anglers or the fisheries that their license dollars support.”

In 1979, the lake trout fishery in the Grand Traverse bays collapsed due to overfishing by Tribal commercial fishers using gill nets and small boats. Launching from several locations and using large-mesh gill nets, Tribal fishers depleted lake trout stocks by as much as 98%.  The fishing was unregulated and upended the fishery in four months.

The collapse played a part in the first court order related to the fishery, which stopped the small-boat fishers in the bays, and set the stage for the first Great Lakes Consent Decree in 1985. 

The proposed decree expands tribal gillnet fishing to Great Lakes areas that haven’t had gillnets for more than 40 years and puts boaters and anglers at risk, according to Radjenovich.

“The only refuge for lake trout reproduction in Lake Huron has been shrunk by more than half, and gillnets are allowed in the refuge 10 months of the year” he said. “The absence of reasonable net marking puts boaters in the Great Lakes at risk of entanglement in gillnets that are poorly marked and may be undisclosed as to their location.”

This issue becomes compounded when considering where gillnets will be allowed — in popular recreational angling hotspots like bays and river mouths.

A shared resource

Prior iterations of the Great Lakes decree focused on a roughly shared resource (50-50 split). All seven parties and the Coalition’s predecessor worked hard to ensure minimal conflict, each party would have equal opportunities, and protecting the fishery would prevail above all else.

It’s clear that a 50-50 allocation was never sought by the Michigan DNR during this negotiation process, Radjenovich said. “Now that the decree is out there, if it is approved by the Court, everyone from DNR fisheries staff to charter captains to recreational boaters and businesses will be trying to figure out how they will deal with this,” Radjenovich said.
Throughout the summer of 2022, CPMR’s role in the negotiations changed. The organization that had always been an interested stakeholder and engaged participant was cast aside, Radenjovich said.

“It became clear by the end of June that the Michigan DNR and State of Michigan were no longer interested in hearing what we had to say,” Radnjovich said. “Recreational anglers and conservationists have always had a voice in these negotiations; it is tough to see that change.”

The Sault Tribe wrench

Before six of the seven parties submitted the proposed decree, the seventh party, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe (SSMT) of Chippewa Indians submitted a notice to the court that it would like to “independently self-regulate” and not be included in a new decree.

History shows us that overall fishery management strategies would not likely follow the same shared regulatory framework since 1985, said Radjenovich. “Previous conversations lead us to believe that self-regulation by the Sault Tribe will end in little to no oversight of gear, locations or catch by the state,” Radenjovich said. “The consent decree only works with the participation of all the parties and the basic agreement first that the fishery resource should be shared roughly 50/50 between state-licensed anglers and the tribes.”

Objections to the SSMT motion to reconsider the 2000 Consent Decree extension to allow for self-regulation were also filed on January 20. 

The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources relies on membership dues from its organizations and donations to pay for its legal fees and to stay in the fight. To date, more than $100,000 has been spent to keep gillnets out of the Great Lakes since 2017. By clicking here, you can help protect our sportfish by donating to the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources GoFundMe page.