Possible consequences of proposed Great Lakes Consent Decree

The proposed consent decree fails to address resource limitations and proposes actions that would increase fishing pressure.  Such actions at this time of resource crisis constitute the State of Michigan’s abdication of its Public Trust responsibility to protect fishery resources on behalf of the Citizens of Michigan. They also constitute an abdication of the Tribes’ responsibility to preserve the fishery for future generations. These actions will do irreparable harm to Great Lakes public-trust resources and the people that depend upon their sustainability. Examples of harmful actions include:

  1. Opening the Drummond Island Refuge to gillnet fishing and harvest of lake trout until October 1.  Such a proposal would violate the State of Michigan’s obligations to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s Joint Strategic Plan for Management of Great Lakes Fisheries (http://www.glfc.org/pubs/misc/jsp97.pdf) to which the State is a signatory. The Drummond Island Refuge was established by interagency consensus in 1985 as part of the rehabilitation effort for lake trout in Lake Huron. To our knowledge, no resource manager from the member international agencies of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission Lake Huron Committee and its technical committee has suggested that this refuge is no longer necessary. Hosting the best spawning habitat and some of the most important rock substrates, which are attractive to lake trout feeding on gobies, the refuge acts as a buffer from the potential overfishing of northern Lake Huron’s lake trout.  Lake trout begin concentrating near spawning reefs as early as mid-September (Michigan DNR Alpena Fishery Research Station, unpublished data). Opening the refuge to gillnet fishing will increase the exploitation rate on a recovering lake trout population and jeopardize its future trajectory, which presently is showing a modest, and concerning, decline in biomass.
  2. Excessive harvest is being permitted around Lake Michigan’s Northern Refuge.  MM-1,2,3 and portions of MM-5 are adjacent to or near the Lake Michigan Northern Refuge.  But mortality rates are too high in MM-1,2,3 for the development of spawning stocks. It must be said that utility of a spawning refuge is seriously compromised when spawning-age fish are scarce.  Those grids surrounding the Northern Refuge should be targeted for especially guarded harvest management, with target mortality rates set at 40% or less and with enforcement and penalties commensurate with the importance of protecting these stocks.  Enforcement and penalties are not defined in the proposed decree.
  3. Opening of Bays de Noc to gillnet fishing.  Walleyes are perhaps the most vulnerable of Great Lakes fish to gillnets because of their teeth, spines and sharp opercula (gill covers) which readily entangle in the mesh. Walleye can be efficiently targeted with gillnets on rock substrates of the bays.  Commercial gillnet fisheries can rapidly deplete walleye stocks to the point that recreational fishing for them is no longer feasible.  Thus, increasing commercial exploitation of walleye in the bays would not only potentially destabilize the population but would compromise the recreational fishery’s ability to realize its allocation. Some of these walleyes are products of stocking by the Bay de Noc Great Lakes Sportfishermen Association.
  4. Commercial fishing for perch and walleye in other waters. There are almost no yellow perch or walleye stocks in 1836 Treaty Waters that can sustain directed commercial fishing.  The lakes are too cold and unproductive to be capable of producing fisheries of a commercial scale for either of these species and this condition has been exacerbated by the mussel invasion.  Where walleyes are targeted, stocking is usually necessary to sustain populations, and numbers are so suppressed by commercial fishing as to prevent recreational fishers from engaging in those fisheries. Expanding commercial exploitation of perch and walleye will further erode the recreational fishery’s ability to realize a fair harvest allocation.
  5. Increased gillnetting “opportunities” in Grand Traverse Bay, Little Traverse Bay, and MM-5, 6, and 7 in Lake Michigan and increased gillnet opportunities in Hammond Bay, Lake Huron, would increase exploitation of the beleaguered whitefish and potentially compromise the promising recovery trajectory of lake trout in these areas. Lake trout mortality targets are being exceeded regularly in Grand Traverse Bay; thus, only a slight increase in exploitation could bring reproduction there to a halt. In 2019, the recreational fishery accepted a lake trout daily bag limit reduction to just one fish per day in Grand Traverse Bay and two fish in northern Lake Huron.  The Traverse Bay reduced bag brought mortality down to target level there that year. Increasing commercial fishing that targets lake trout in the wake of these angling penalties is totally inappropriate and will stymy the emergence of reproduction. Gillnets are more efficient than trapnets or angling and an increase in gillnetting could bring catch rates down to the point of economic extinction for the trapnet and recreational fisheries, depriving them of their allocations of harvest. A case in point is Rogers City, nearly adjacent to the proposed unlimited shallow-water (less than 50 ft) gillnetting opportunity during spring on 40-Mile Point.  Lake trout aggregate densely in these rocky shoal waters to prey on round gobies. Increased lake trout exploitation there will inevitably cause erosion of recreational catch rates and compromise the economic vitality of Rogers City and its marina development, which was partially predicated on the vibrant recreational fishery the area has enjoyed under the 2000 Decree. An example of the consequences of a targeted and unlimited gillnet fishery is illustrated by 1978-79 DNR assessment data from Hammond Bay–Cheboygan areas of northern Lake Huron.  The DNR’s assessment fishing there measured an 83% drop in lake trout density between 1978 and 1979.  Survival rate was less than 2% for the 1973 cohorts of lake trout during that one-year period; these cohorts were at record high abundance levels in 1978 and their abrupt decline coincided with an intensive gillnet fishery that operated on those grounds in fall 1978 (Cruise report for the Michigan DNR Research Vessel Chinook, May 28-June 29, 1979.  Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Alpena Fishery Research Station, Unpublished Report). A single fall season of gillnetting nearly eliminated the lake trout population there.  Similarly, a wave of gillnet effort in Grand Traverse Bay in 1979 reduced the lake trout stock there by over 90% in a matter of months. These are examples of the “fishing up” of targeted stocks of fish: when a lucrative fishery is identified, the fish population is intensely targeted causing the stock to decline.  As the stock declines, gillnet fishers respond by setting ever more gillnet.  Effort spirals up until the targeted stock is almost fished out and no longer attractive as a fishery.  This fishing up can have disastrous effects in as little as a few months, as shown above.
  6. The proposed expansion of gillnet opportunity will Increase exploitation rates on lake whitefish while their population levels in lakes Huron and Michigan are extremely depressed, putting at risk the future of commercial fishing on lakes Michigan and Huron, where whitefish are the mainstay of the fishery. Whitefish represent a species of special cultural heritage and economic importance.
  7. Harvest policy and status of the stocks need to be reviewed at least annually and more frequently where populations are especially depressed, yet the proposed decree would review harvest policy only every 3 years and mortality targets every 6 years. Such infrequent reviews of harvest policy could have disastrous consequences. As we have seen during the early 2000s, much can happen to fish populations and fishing patterns in as few as one or two years. The proposed Consent Decree needs to set initially conservative target mortality rates for recovering and stressed stocks to reverse the declining trend in the status of fisheries of lakes Huron and Michigan. The draft Decree fails to set objective-based mortality targets and delegates setting of mortality rates to the Executive Council with input from the Technical Fisheries Committee, which leaves this critical need unresolved. It is essential that harvest limits be reviewed annually and that corrective adjustments be made to harvest plans on a timely basis, at least until lakes Huron and Michigan begin showing signs of stabilization and self-sustainability.
  8. Eastern Lake Superior (MI-8) is realizing whitefish mortality rates that are higher than anywhere in Treaty of 1836 waters and the rates are increasing.  This should be looked at with alarm because a failure of these “home waters” for the Bay Mills and the Sault tribes would undermine an ancient fishery heritage.  We see no effort to direct attention to this issue. Instead, the draft seems to incentivize increasing of gillnet effort.  The decline of whitefish in lakes Huron and Michigan will probably cause gillnet fishers to focus even more effort on Lake Superior; thus, further declines in the status of whitefish in MI-8 seem likely
  9. Gillnetting compromises other Great Lakes fish populations, including lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon number less than 1% of historical levels (Ed Baker: https://www.michiganradio.org/environment-science/2020-08-11/dead-sturgeon-found-on-lake-michigan-beaches), are State-listed as “threatened” in Michigan, and a federal court has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a determination by 2024 whether imperiled populations of lake sturgeon will be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Restoration stocking of lake sturgeon began in Bays de Noc in 2006 and these stocked fish are relatively young, meaning they are of sizes to be vulnerable to the 4.5-inch gillnets most commonly fished for lake whitefish and lake trout.  Gillnets are non-selective, and their catch is often dead or moribund when landed.  Thus, it is important to protect sturgeon rehabilitation sites from commercial gillnetting.