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Commercial fishing in the Great Lakes could see some changes. Not everyone’s on board.

Whitefish from Lake Michigan, January 2009.
NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
Whitefish are a prized species for commercial fishing in the Great Lakes. Proposed regulatory changes are aimed at a better whitefish yield for tribal fishers. (Photo: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.)

For the past 37 years, an agreement between the State of Michigan, the federal government, and five sovereign tribal nations has guided commercial fishing regulations in parts of the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Consent Decree applies to waters ceded by tribal nations in 1836. It’s meant to prevent overharvesting and maintain a sustainable fishery.

The last decree was set to expire in 2020, but was extended as negotiations carried on.

“This process took more than three years because it was a challenging process,” said David Carrofino, Tribal Coordination Unite Manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“Nobody dictated to anybody else that ‘this is what it’s going to be.’ We all worked together to find common ground,” Caroffino said.

Four of the five tribes involved are supporting the new decree, but the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians has other plans.

The tribe filed a brief in federal court seeking to self-regulate its own fisheries – separate from any state oversight.

Tribal officials did not provide comment for this story. But their legal brief points to language in the 2000 consent decree stating that it would no longer govern the tribes “in any manner” once it expires. Read the full brief below:

Other objections to the decree come from sport fishing and conservation groups, which take issue with changes in the new agreement – namely, opening up more areas for fishing with gill nets.

They argue that the gill nets kill many more species of fish than what’s being targeted for harvest.

“We know that gill nets are indiscriminate, lethal killers of fish,” said Tony Radjenovich, president of the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources, which is challenging the new consent decree.

Gill nets are hung vertically in the water to trap fish by their gills. A 1979 federal court ruling affirmed tribal fishers’ treaty rights to use gill nets in their ceded territory.

The Great Lakes Consent Decree applies to waters ceded by sovereign tribal nations in the 1836 Treaty of Washington. (Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.)
The Great Lakes Consent Decree applies to waters ceded by sovereign tribal nations in the 1836 Treaty of Washington. (Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.)

But Radjenovich says opening more areas for this use is a step backwards from the 2000 consent decree, after which the state spent millions of dollars to facilitate a transition towards trap nets: a more selective commercial fishing method.

“So is it protecting the resource? If the [gill] nets go in the water, I would say it’s not,” said Radjenovich.

Tribal fishers dispute the claim that gill nets will deplete fisheries in the Great Lakes. The Michigan DNR says the change will have a minimal impact, and comes because the current regulations aren’t yielding a sufficient whitefish harvest for the tribes.

Judge Paul Maloney will review the new consent decree in federal court Friday. He’ll also consider the Sault Tribe’s proposal to self-regulate its fisheries.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.