January 12th Update

UPDATE: Current Negotiations with Michigan’s Tribes- Some Background


This is the first in a series of updates that we will be posting to let those interested in the sport and commercial fisheries of the Great Lakes know what is happening in the negotiation of a new agreement between the State, the Federal government and the five Michigan tribes holding a Treaty right to fish in the Michigan portion of the Great Lakes. This update is presented by the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources, an association of sportfishing and natural resource organizations that is participating in the negotiations.


Many are aware of the effects of the Treaty of 1836 and the right to fish the Great Lakes that it grants to five Michigan Tribes. For the uninitiated, though, this first update will give you a very brief background on how we got to where we are today. This background will be brief because the issues we currently face have been around for more than 50 years and books have been written that tell the history of the current issues.


Today, several facts are established regarding Tribal fishing in the Great Lakes:  First, for almost 40 years, the law has been established that treaties negotiated between Michigan’s tribes and the Federal government reserved to five Michigan Tribes, the right to fish commercially with whatever gear they wished in the waters of the Great Lakes from Grand Haven north in Like Michigan, from roughly Alpena north in Lake Huron and from roughly Munising east in Lake Superior.


Second, the Tribes’ right to fish is not unlimited. At a minimum, conservation needs limit tribal fishing activity. In addition, since 1985, there have been two agreements between the State, the Federal government and the five Tribes that set forth limits on all users of the Lakes, including limitations on the amount of catch, and the kinds of fishing gear and the areas where particular gear can be used.  These agreements also provide for communication between the parties on a regular basis, coordination of law enforcement and the exchange of information. The first agreement was negotiated and became effective in 1985. It had a 15 year term.  The second became effective in 2000 and had a 20 year term.  The second agreement has been extended by the Federal Court to June 30, 2021 while the parties try to negotiate a new agreement.


Third, no one can deny that the fishery resources in the Great Lakes have been changing in the past few years.  These changes have many possible causes, but the fact is that the Lakes’ fishery stocks are not what they were 10 years ago.


Against this background, the parties have been in negotiations toward a new agreement to share the Lakes’ fishery since last September.  Due to the Covid pandemic, however, those negotiations have been conducted via Zoom and phone conversations. This has greatly affected the effectiveness of what negotiations we have had. You should also be aware that all parties, including the Coalition, have agreed to not to “disclose any proposal, response to a proposal, or the substance of any discussion [among the Parties] ….” Thus, we are somewhat limited in what we can share publicly.

Though we cannot discuss with you the Parties’ discussions or proposals, a look at the agreement that has governed the relationship of State licensed and Tribal fishers for the last 20 years can give you a good idea of the things that are at issue now.  Those include agreements on the areas of the Great Lakes where gill nets and trap nets can be fished by the Tribes, the species of fish that may be commercially targeted, and the limits on the catch of various species such as whitefish, salmon, lake trout and walleye, among others.  A review of the Table of Contents of the “2000 Consent Decree” gives a good outline of the issues and complexity of the fishery and the Treaty right. The full agreement and other resources can be found at http://protectmiresources.com/brief-history/.


NEXT:  In our next UPDATE, we’ll discuss some of the issues facing the fishery and the negotiators as they try to reach a new agreement on fishing by Tribal and State licensed fishers.