Consent Decree: Recreational Anglers Will Not Support New Great Lakes Fishing Deal

Gill net

Conservationists and recreational anglers presented objections to a proposed Consent Decree that would significantly affect Great Lakes fisheries including the sport fishery. 

Six of the seven parties had submitted a proposed Great Lakes Consent Decree to the court on December 11, 2022. The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources (CPMR) sought intervention months earlier when it became clear that the State of Michigan and its Department of Natural Resources (DNR) were not protecting the resource, not representing recreational anglers and did not seek a roughly 50/50 shared allocation of the fishery resource.

In January, CPMR filed its objections to the proposed decree. If instituted, the proposed decree will have disastrous impacts on the resource in general and recreational fisheries in many areas, including Grand Traverse Bay, Big Bay De Noc and Hammond Bay, and will likely unravel a decade’s worth of progress in rehabilitating lake trout.

The objections were argued before a federal court in Kalamazoo late last month.

The State hasn’t viewed or treated CPMR as a partner from the beginning, said CPMR President Tony Radjenovich, and the process followed has been different from the decrees negotiated in 1985 and 2000.

“It seems clear that the DNR never intended to work with us as a partner, and watching the State argue against biology in open court is proof of that,” he said. “Knowing recreational anglers would not support what is proposed, the State has still come to charter captains and stakeholder groups to ask for help in selling this disaster to anglers.” 

A proposition that is laughable, he said, given how the State has treated its recreational anglers during this process.

On June 1, the court ordered the Coalition and the other parties to file with the court proposed findings of fact and legal conclusions based on the Coalition’s objections. Through this filing, the Coalition will ask for several determinations that ultimately support the position that the successor decree is not fair, reasonable or in the public’s interest and will do biological harm to the resource.

In the 1970s when the first court order related to Great Lakes Tribal fishing rights was handed down, there were disagreements between Tribal fishers and state recreational fishers. At times, the tension even became violent  — it was a black eye that no angler or Tribal member should want to be repeated.

Gillnets — which have a long history in Michigan — have been the nucleus of one of the main arguments between the parties for more than 50 years. The proposed decree allows millions of new feet of gill net effort to be fished in popular recreational fishing zones that haven’t had them for 40 years. The proposed decree would also allow gill nets to surround lake trout refuges and in the case of the Lake Huron refuge, actually fish gill nets in the refuge.

This is contrary to the State’s long-held position on gill nets. In a state outline of the commercial fishing industry, the Michigan DNR states:

“In 1972 the DNR banned the use of small-mesh gill nets throughout the Great Lakes. This action especially influenced near-shore locations because small-mesh gill nets were fished in shallow bays that often serve as the nursery grounds for juvenile fish. By replacing these gill nets with small-mesh trap nets, mortality was greatly reduced and an extremely high percentage of non-target and undersized fish began being released alive. This action was followed in 1974 with a ban on large-mesh gill nets in all Michigan waters of the Great Lakes because of their detrimental effects on efforts to rehabilitate lake trout and expand the newly established salmon fishery. “

Those “shallow bays that serve as the nursery grounds for juvenile fish” will again see gillnets under the proposed decree.

“Placing gill nets where vulnerable fish populations congregate is not biologically sound,” Radjenovish said. “This proposed decree runs contrary to what scientists and biologists have told us about gill nets for years — they are indiscriminate, lethal, effective and cheap — and you do not use them when trying to recover a fishery.”

When the State banned gill nets for its commercial fishers in the ‘60s, the Tribes asserted their treaty right to fish as a sovereign nation unregulated by the State. When their Treaty right was finally confirmed in 1979, Tribal fishers used large-mesh gill nets to deplete the Grand Traverse Bay lake trout stock by over 90% within a few months. 

A court injunction halted all Tribal gill net fishing in the bay and eventually led to the entry of the 1985 Great Lakes Consent Decree that created tribal and recreational fishing zones.

Tribal sovereignty has been used as justification for much of the changes in the proposed decree, Radjenovich said.

 “In 1985 and 2000, the parties recognized that co-management and a shared fishery should serve as a foundation,” Radjenovich said. “This proposed decree stands in stark contrast to those of the past and will upend years of lake trout rehabilitation and Great Lakes fisheries co-management.”

To help keep gillnets from expanding in our Great Lakes and to protect sport fish, please consider donating to the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources by clicking here.