Court dates in Tribal fishing decree could determine fate of Great Lakes fisheries 

Back-to-back court dates scheduled for this month could determine whether a proposed consent decree between the state, feds, and five sovereign tribes will cause drastic impacts to parts of our Great Lakes fishery.

An existing Great Lakes Consent Decree signed in 2000 governs fishing regulations in certain waters of lakes Michigan and Huron from Grand Haven north around the tip of the mitt to Alpena and most of eastern Lake Superior. The 2000 decree balanced recreational and Tribal commercial fishing of lake trout and whitefish through a zonal approach. That decree was set to expire in 2020 but has been extended by the court while a successor decree has been negotiated by the parties.

Since 1985, two decrees governing allocations have been in place. The foundation of those decrees was that our Great Lakes fisheries should be equally split between the parties.

Tony Radjenovich, President of Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources (CPMR) said the sport and recreational fishery was not represented during these negotiations.

“Last year, it became clear that the State of Michigan and its Department of Natural Resources had abandoned the principle of a shared fishery and were more concerned about placating the tribes,” Radjenovich said. “Recreational anglers have little recourse for the biological damage that will occur in traditional recreational zones.”

The current proposed consent decree represents a deal that CPMR was excluded from providing input on. CPMR believes it will jeopardize the Great Lakes fishery and the interests of recreational anglers around the state. In response, CPMR has launched a legal fight to seek significant changes to the currently proposed consent decree before it is entered and controls the parties for several more decades. 

May 3, 2023: Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

In June of 2022, the relationship between the Michigan DNR and the Coalition broke down. As soon as it became clear in July that there was disagreement over the outcome and a real lack of any chance to have input into the negotiations through the State, CPMR filed a motion to intervene, which  was subsequently denied by the District Court in August. CPMR asked the District Court to reconsider its decision, but those efforts were again denied in early October.

An appeal was promptly filed with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in October, asking that the ruling of the District Court be overturned and the organization be included in the ongoing proceedings as a full party. The State, Tribes, and federal government oppose this appeal.

On May 3, attorneys from CPMR will present its case for intervention to the Cincinnati court in hopes of getting CPMR a seat at the table.

May 24-25, 2023: Oral Arguments to Decree

When denying the intervention of CPMR in August of 2022, the Judge announced his intent to allow CPMR and its attorneys to present oral arguments on its objections to the proposed decree. 

Three key points attorneys will focus on are the abandonment of the Court’s previous holding that the fishery resource is shared between the parties, the expansion of gillnets by area and season that will decimate and destabilize the fisheries as science and past experience shows, and the lack of any agreed-upon mortality rates to limit overharvest of the fishery, setting the stocks back decades. The Coalition has also included several other concerns in its objections, all of which will be heard in May.

Jim Johnson, retired Lake Huron DNR biologist and CPMR member, said mortality rates must favor natural reproduction.

Mortality targets for lake trout, if set at 40% or lower, produce harvest policy that favors reproduction — it creates self-sustaining lake trout populations that are less dependent or independent of stocking,” Johnson said. “Further, the mortality rate cannot simply be ignored in favor of increased stocking because stocking is not successful in large parts of the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron.”

The premise and foundation of these decrees have been a shared resource, said Amy Trotter, Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) executive director and CPMR board member.

“Opportunity is not a commodity conservationists are willing to give away with nothing in return — especially given that they may now have to use hook and line to compete with gill nets, which are far more effective and lethal, in popular recreational fishing zones,” Trotter said.

In a court-ordered study comparing bycatch of gill nets and trap nets, it was determined that a gillnet fishery in northern Lake Huron with a whitefish quota of 240,000 pounds would kill as bycatch the entire harvestable surplus of lake trout in that management unit — gill nets could not be fished selectively where lake trout rehabilitation was a priority.

“While it’s true that tribal nations are sovereign, it does not mean that they can abdicate co-management responsibilities,” said Radjenovich. “It is unclear why the DNR negotiated using a tactic it clearly opposes and outlaws for Michigan anglers and state-licensed commercial fishers.”

According to the DNR’s website:

“Unfortunately, gill nets also indiscriminately harvested all fish species in the targeted size range and produced very high levels of bycatch mortality of non-target species… Therefore, in 1972 the DNR banned the use of small-mesh gill nets throughout the Great Lakes.”

What can you do?

CPMR comprises conservation and angling groups across the state. The four A-share members are MUCC, the Michigan Charter Boat Association, Hammond Bay Area Anglers Association and the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association.

These organizations have spent over $200,000 fighting to protect our sportfishing heritage and Great Lakes fisheries. Other B-share groups throughout Michigan have supplemented their contributions in the tens of thousands.

Without CPMR, your voice as an angler and conservationist would not be heard. The Michigan DNR has abandoned the principle of a shared fishery.

There is a GoFundMe set up to help offset the coalition’s legal costs. Please consider donating or returning to your club or organization with a monetary ask.