State of Michigan, DNR Releases Questionable FAQ Document Related to Fishing Decree


The State of Michigan and its Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued an “FAQ” document last week taking shots at angling and conservation organizations trying to protect our Great Lakes fisheries.

The state has presented what it views as the most frequently asked questions related to a proposed Great Lakes Consent Decree that it has signed with four out of five tribes with fishing rights in the Great Lakes. This proposed decree has been submitted to a federal court for approval, and its submission follows a tumultuous, secretive process leaving anglers and conservationists scratching their heads. 

The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources (CPMR), a coalition of conservation and angling groups, has been fighting on behalf of recreational anglers for the health of our fisheries since early in the negotiations. When it became clear that the State of Michigan no longer sought a roughly 50-50 shared fishery, the coalition made its objections known to the DNR and was thrown out of the negotiating room.

Gill nets at the heart of the disagreement

“Specifically, the proposed decree includes regulations to protect vulnerable fish populations…” reads FAQ bullet point one. How? It is well-documented why the 2000 Great Lakes Consent Decree removed millions of feet of Tribal gillnets from the Great Lakes fishery — they had devastating impacts on lake trout populations. 

In fact, the State of Michigan banned gillnet usage for state-licensed commercial fishers in the 1960s after research concluded gillnets are non-selective and have disastrous consequences for bycatch populations.

In agreeing to millions of feet of new gill net fishing, the State of Michigan argues gill nets are selective, but it fails to recognize the very premise its argument is based on: “If their use in the Great Lakes was always destructive, they would not be used,” the FAQ reads. This is precisely why DNR employees are only allowed to use them to sample fish for research — they are incredibly effective at catching all the fish in an area in an expedited manner. The DNR uses gillnets because hook and line would be too costly and inefficient to sample multiple fish populations.

The FAQs also state that lake trout populations won’t be harmed: “The proposed consent decree would ensure that Lake Trout populations are carefully monitored and managed through harvest limits that result from complex population modeling and the application of sustainable mortality rates.”

The draft agreement does not contain any provisions for careful modeling; however, the most critical input for that modeling, the mortality rate for a fish species, is notably absent for lake trout, walleye, perch, whitefish or any other species. Without agreement on a reduced mortality rate, current fisheries stocks are at grave risk with the increase in gill net fishing pressure.

The efforts that have started to work in the last several decades to restore natural lake trout reproduction — mostly in the absence of gill nets — could now be undone by an enormous expansion of gill net fishing throughout the northern Great Lakes and harvest rates that will destroy those past efforts. Instead of continuing the gill net reduction program efforts of the past 50 years, the state’s agreement expands gill net fishing throughout the Great Lakes.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that few DNR biologists were involved in the negotiations,” said CPMR President Tony Radjenovich. “Our charter captain group is close with folks on the ground. The DNR can not defend this agreement as biologically sound.”

Claiming in the FAQs that the millions of feet of new gill net are only a “reallocation,” the state leaves out where those reallocations, and new gill net zones, would be: East and West Grand Traverse bays, Little Traverse Bay, Hammond Bay, the Bays De Noc, the waters off Ludington, Manistee and Frankfort, and river mouths throughout the treaty waters.

These are incredibly popular recreational fishing zones. With Tribal gill nets now allowed in these areas where fish tend to congregate at certain times of the year, what happened in the late 1970s in the Grand Traverse bays and Hammond Bay will likely be repeated. Both fisheries’ lake trout stocks were depleted significantly — in West Bay, up to 96 percent of the lake trout were gone. Small-boat Tribal fishers with large-mesh gill nets did this in less than four months. This led to the first court injunction in this case. 

But it was too late. Both fisheries would take years to recover. 

DNR aims at conservation and angling groups

The State of Michigan grossly misleads the public when describing the context of its relationship with conservation and angling organizations throughout the negotiations.

Since 1979, recreational groups, including MUCC, the Michigan Steelheaders, the Michigan Charter Boat Association, the Grand Traverse Sportfishing Association and several other lake associations and resource protection organizations, have participated in court proceedings and negotiations over previous agreements involving the Great Lakes fishery and Tribal claims for inland hunting, gathering and fishing rights. 

For 43 years, these groups enjoyed a good working relationship with the DNR and Governor’s office, even though they may have sometimes disagreed.

When the negotiations began in 2019, those groups participated again, but the court limited their participation to only working through the DNR representatives. The groups were not allowed to participate directly. Being focused on the biological standards necessary to provide for a sustainable fishery and with the knowledge of history and the needs of a recreational fishery, the relationship got off to a rough start when the state’s initial efforts were focused on getting a deal, not on getting a deal that protects the fishery. 

The relationship broke down in late June 2022 when the state representatives indicated to the recreational representatives that they did not have time to address “local concerns.” From then on, CPMR was denied drafts of documents, and the DNR refused to meet with the organization’s representatives or share proposals of any agreements.

Being frozen out of the negotiations, the recreational fishing groups within CPMR asked the court to become a full party in the case and in the negotiations since the State of Michigan had frozen it out and was no longer representing the needs of the recreational fishery. This filing was under seal due to a confidentiality agreement, which hid the information from the public.  

The state then argued that CPMR did not provide enough information to support being a full party while simultaneously saying that the confidentiality agreement was violated when it did.  The state used this tactic to cast a derogatory shadow over CPMR and to hide any further discussions the parties were having. The FAQ is just another attempt to attack the efforts of the CPMR rather than deal with the flaws the organization has pointed out.

 This issue is complex and complicated.  Dedicated recreational support organizations like MUCC, Michigan Charter Boat Association, Michigan Steelheaders and many others have banded together to oppose this disastrous agreement through the CPMR and will continue to do so to protect the fishery and recreational fishers.

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