THE TREATY NEGOTIATIONS ARE THREATENING
As many people know, the agreement that we have been living with for the last 20 years that has protected our Great Lakes sport fishery is expiring. As of August 8 of THIS year, there will be no agreement or Court order that regulates the activities of tribal commercial fishermen in the waters next to the area outlined on the map below. For the past 20 years, we have had relative peace and a sport fishery that has coexisted with a tribal commercial fishery. The State is now in active negotiations with the tribes for a new agreement. The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources is concerned about the Great Lakes fishery and has been regularly participating throughout the current negotiations.
THINGS ARE NOT GOING WELL. Negotiations have been ongoing for the last 6 months and have not been resolved to our knowledge. Finally, the parties have agreed to appoint a mediator to help resolve the issues, but we have months of negotiations ahead of us. To explain why we need to stay in the fight, here are some questions and answers:
What water is affected by tribal commercial fishing?
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.
Why do we need an agreement with the Tribes?
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. There are no rules that regulate tribal commercial fishing unless we reach an agreement on them, the tribes set their own rules on their own terms, or the Court issues rules. Think about the alternatives. It’s almost impossible to manage a fishery when there are at least 6 governments with some level of 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.
Many years ago, 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.
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 Great Lakes fishery. 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 with gillnets. 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.
Aren’t the negotiations secret?
Yes, they are. We only know what is going on because the Coalition is participating in the negotiations. People want to know what is happening that could directly affect their fishing, but there’s a practical problem.
As you can imagine, these negotiations are highly sensitive and highly political. 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 or 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.