TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Four Native American tribes have agreed with Michigan and federal officials on a revised fishing policy for parts of three of the Great Lakes, officials said Monday.
The deal involves contentious issues for groups wanting shares of a dwindling resource, as populations of valuable species — particularly lake trout, whitefish and salmon — have fallen over the past two decades.
A proposed order submitted to a federal judge would extend for 24 years a system overseeing commercial and sport fishing in areas of lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior covered by an 1836 treaty.
Under the treaty, Odawa and Ojibway nations who describe themselves collectively as Anishinaabek ceded lands that would comprise nearly 40% of Michigan’s eventual territory while retaining hunting and fishing rights.
Rising tensions between tribal commercial operations and sport anglers led to a fishery management pact in 1985, which was updated in 2000. That version was due to expire two years ago but was extended to allow continued negotiations.
“We believe this agreement has clear benefits for all the parties,” said David Caroffino, tribal coordination unit manager for the fisheries division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
In addition to the state and the U.S. Department of Interior, participants include the Bay Mills Indian Community, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which has joined the previous deals, hasn’t signed this one, Caroffino said. The tribe has filed a motion with U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney, who is overseeing the case, seeking the authority to regulate its own fishing. Officials from that tribe didn’t immediately respond to Monday messages seeking comment.
The agreement, like its predecessors, sets zones where tribal fishing crews can operate and areas where commercial fishing is off-limits. It deals with topics such as catch limits and which gear tribal operations can use.
Particularly controversial is tribes’ use of large-mesh gill nets, an effective tool that hangs in the water column like a wall. Critics say they indiscriminately catch and kill too many fish. The new deal let tribes use the nets in more places, with restrictions on depth in the water they’re placed, the times of year they’re used and how much netting is deployed.
State biologists are confident that the limited expansion of gill netting won’t harm fish populations and will have “minimal impacts” on sport fishing, Caroffino said.
Sport fishing groups believe otherwise, said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Under the 2000 consent decree, she said, Michigan spent more than $14 million paying tribal operations to transition from gill nets to trap nets, which are more selective.
More gill netting will upset a roughly 50-50 balance between harvesting opportunities for tribes and state-licensed sport anglers, Trotter said. The consent decree appears to tilt in the direction of tribal interests at the expense of sport anglers, charter boat operators and tourism-dependent communities.
“We’ve lived in relative harmony for the past 22 years,” Trotter said. But if sport anglers struggle to find fish or encounter nets stretched across bays as they try to reach open waters in boats, “we definitely will have conflicts in the future.”
Caroffino said tribal crews’ need for gill netting has risen with the collapse of whitefish populations, which have suffered as invasive quagga mussels have gobbled up their food supply.