The talk about the negotiations with five Michigan Tribes over the future of commercial and sport fishing in the Great Lakes is picking up.  See, for example, the discussion thread at michigan-sportsman.com. Some of the talk begs for more information on what’s happening, why there isn’t more public information, and what’s upcoming. We’ll try to answer some of that here. Sorry for the length, but there’s 40+ years of history here.


  1. Why are there negotiations? 


As you probably know by now, there’s an 1836 treaty that gives five Michigan tribes a right to fish in the Great Lakes. Both state and federal courts have ruled the right exists. The waters affected are roughly from Grand Haven north in Lake Michigan, from Alpena north in Lake Huron and from Munising east in Lake Superior.

Beyond granting the right, the treaty says nothing more about the rules that apply to tribal fishing and to the rights of non-tribal sportfishing men and women.

“Nature abhors a vacuum.” This really applies when talking about natural resources like our sport fishery and the commercial fishery.   If there are no limits to how a natural resource can be used or harvested, you can bet that there will be a rush by everyone to get what they can. In our case, when the court declared the treaty right in 1979, a “racehorse” fishery ensued. There was a right declared but there were no rules. Folks fished as hard and fast as possible to get “their” fish first. The result was a severely damaged commercial and sport fishery in several places in the early 1980s.

In addition, it’s almost impossible to manage a fishery when there are at least 6 governments with authority over the same water if those governments are not cooperating in management. Once the courts declared the treaty right, 5 tribes and the State, all had some form of regulatory authority over those who like to fish. Problem is, managing for a sport fishery and for a commercial fishery is a lot different and can even be conflicting.

It didn’t take long before the five Tribes, the State and the Federal government realized that having no set rules or regulations was ruining everyone’s fishing rights. In 1983, one of the five tribes actually triggered the first negotiations to set some rules for tribal and sport fishing by asking the federal court to “allocate” the Great Lakes fishery between the tribes and the State. By 1985, the tribes, State and Feds had reached an agreement to create commercial fishing zones for the tribes, sport fishing zones for the state and mixed zones for both. That deal expired in 2000, however, so in 1999, the parties got together again and negotiated a new set of rules that have been in place since 2000. That deal expires this August.

We need a new agreement.


  1. Why do we need a new agreement? What happens if we don’t get one?


Simply put, if we do not reach a new agreement, we don’t know what will happen to the fishery. We haven’t had to face that for 40 years. We do know that if there are no rules, chaos will ensue. The State will try to regulate non-tribal folks and each of the five tribes will try to regulate their members.


Imagine each of the tribes with different ideas of what to fish for, where to fish, and when to fish. Imagine the State trying to set bag limits without knowing what the other five sets of tribal rules might do to the fishery. Imagine trying to come up with stocking plans when we don’t know who is fishing for what and under what limits. There are dozens of problems if there is not a common set of rules for all of us who fish, be it by hook or net.


If we don’t get a new agreement, there is one other huge problem facing us: conflict. In the early 1980s, there was a good deal of social conflict and gear conflict. No one knew the rules and as folks with different interests and different goals all chased the same fish, there was conflict. No one won and everyone lost during that time. Folks have forgotten those days as we’ve lived together under agreements for these last 35 years.


  1. So if these negotiations are so important, why are they so secret?


You are right to ask this. These negotiations are of extreme importance to us and to the tribes. People want to know what is happening that could directly affect their fishing.

These negotiations are also highly sensitive and highly political, however. There are dozens of interested parties and seven governments involved, each with their own groups of constituents. In this atmosphere, having a frank discussion among the negotiators to explore different options for settlement is almost impossible if everything anyone might say ends up on someone’s Facebook page without context and with a negative blast attached.

So, to allow people to speak more freely, all of the parties in the room signed a confidentiality agreement committing to keep things in the room until negotiations end or a deal is reached. If a deal is reached, it has to be submitted to the federal court for approval, so it will be public and openly discussed before the Court signs off.


  1. Are sport fishers represented?


Yes, though not to the extent we would like. In addition to the State, which says that it represents sportfishing, the Coalition of sport fishing and conservation groups you have heard about is participating independently of the State and tribes. The Coalition is not a full party to the federal court case, and it does not have a full “seat at the table,” but it is in the room, talking with the parties including the tribes and it regularly meets with the State negotiators to give them its views. The Coalition has been in the room at every negotiation session so far and has put forth a comprehensive set of terms that it feels must be part of any new agreement.

The Coalition members include, among many others, MUCC, the Michigan Charter Boat Association, the Michigan Steelheaders, the GTASFA, and the Hammond Bay Anglers. There are several other groups that are members of the Coalition and have supported it for many years including the Blue Water Sportfishing Association, the Burt Lake, Black Lake and Walloon Lake associations, Sturgeon for Tomorrow, and the Great Lakes Council of Fly Fishers International.

Representatives from the MCBA, the GTASFA, and Hammond Bay make up the Coalition negotiators along with its attorneys, one of whom has been directly involved in every negotiation since the one that lead to the 1985 agreement.