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Bergman urges Whitmer to revisit fishing rules

News File Photo A gillnet is displayed in the back of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Alpena Fisheries Research Station on Fletcher Street on Sept. 27. The net is 6 feet tall and officials say typical gillnet length can go up to 20 feet.

ALPENA — U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, who represents Northeast Michigan, has urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a letter to reexamine the 2023 Great Lakes Fishing Decree to address concerns and inquiries about its language, with one of his concerns being about the allowance of gillnets for indigenous tribes in Michigan.

The agreement between four Native American tribes and the state and federal governments sets tribal fishing rules in different parts of lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior.

The new deal allows the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Bay Mills Indian Community, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians to put gillnets in more locations in the lakes, which has become a controversial topic among anglers and commercial fishers.

State fishery officials say gillnets catch large numbers of fish by the gill and suffocate the fish, meaning most fish die in the nets. Any fish not legally permitted to be used or sold will die and later be discarded, officials said.

Bergman questioned the permission of gillnets, stating in the letter, “This work has included spending more than $14 million in taxpayer funds following the 2000 Great Lakes Decree to help tribal fishers transition from gillnets to trap nets, which are more selective.”

Afterward, Bergman asked if the state government had changed its positions on the harm of gillnets and requested copies of data that the government may have relied on during the decision-making.

“My staff and I have been in contact with a number of local organizations and individual constituents with concerns since the agreement was finalized and approved — including small business owners, conservation groups, and recreational anglers,” Bergman said in an email commenting on his letter. “If the State doesn’t immediately take a proactive role to address the concerns raised by myself and others, we’re risking the natural treasures, tourism, economies, and heritage of communities in Northern Michigan and the (Upper Peninsula).”

Whitmer’s office did not return a message from The News seeking comment.

The language that opens up the use of gillnets for the four Native American tribes has upset many anglers who say gillnets devastate fish populations and that there should be more restrictions on the tribes’ use of them.

The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources, an organization against the agreement, appealed the 2023 Great Lakes Fishing Decree in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, filing the appeal on Dec. 19.

The federal government and the four tribes that helped to negotiate the deal are the plaintiffs opposing the coalition.

Tony Radjenovich, president of the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources, said that the plaintiffs requested a 30-day extension to submit a response for the appeal and must respond by Feb. 20.

Dave Caroffino, unit manager of tribal coordination at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, previously told The News that tribes originally caught whitefish, but, because of declining populations from invasive species such as zebra mussels, they want to catch lake trout for commercial use.

“People are concerned about by-catch, which is when other fish get caught and die,” Caroffino said. “There are strict netting rules that decide which by-catch can be used or sold and ones that need to be thrown out. I’m looking at the judge’s final opinion and he saw the data. He said the coalition’s concerns are unfounded, and that it’s not as bad than some say.”

Bergman’s letter also asked the governor and the DNR to answer which actions the state government would take if parties consistently fish above harvest limits.

He said that the 2000 Fishing Agreement included concrete actions in the event overfishing happens, but that the 2023 agreement does not have any language on that.

“The 2023 decree doesn’t penalize parties for going over harvest limits whatsoever and instead relies on self-policing and just hoping that everyone will follow through on their commitments,” Bergman said in an email. “That’s a recipe for abuse.”

Bergman said the governor’s team’s response to his letter will likely take some time, but that he will follow up if he does not get a response soon enough.

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