Consent decree dangerous for local fishing

Justin Hinkley’s column of March 18, on the theme of “Sunshine Week,” which celebrates open government, quotes the Dalai Lama: “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”

The column concludes, “The government works for the people, and ought to be as open as possible.”

Those sentiments are in sharp contrast to the behavior of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division as it “markets” the outcome of three years of secret negotiations that led to a dangerously risky proposed new consent decree about fishing in 1836 treaty waters of the Great Lakes.

Some background: In 1979, a federal district court ruled that tribes of the 1836 Treaty of Washington have fishing rights in their waters of lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. The state can intervene with Native fishing only for the purposes of conservation and fair harvest opportunity for state-licensed users.

Since then, agreements divided those treaty waters into zones for gill nets, trap nets, recreational fishing, and refuges. And provisions were added to better protect lake trout, which were still recovering from near-extinction caused by overfishing and sea lampreys.

The state invested $14 million in taxpayer money to convert about half of the tribes’ commercial gill nets to the less lethal, more selective trap nets. Gillnets had been banned in the state-licensed fishery since the 1970s.

Gillnets are not just lethal, they are extremely efficient, made of modern extruded polymers that are almost invisible under water. Fish simply cannot see them and swim into their lethal meshes, becoming entangled and often caught by the gills, which causes suffocation.

The proposed new consent decree undoes the $14 million investment in gillnet reduction and represents an about-face by the DNR on gill nets. Zones are almost gone, a refuge is now opened to gillnetting, and gillnets will be unleashed in places they have not been for over 35 years. That jeopardizes an already dwindling fishery resource and both the tribal and recreational angler’s opportunity to fish the Great Lakes.

That can only be a formula for disaster.

Whitefish have nearly collapsed and the remaining whitefish will be hunted down. Still-recovering lake trout, along with walleye, will be the new targets.

In 2000, lake trout were considered a “bycatch” to the targeting of whitefish, and lake trout were given special levels of protection.

Now, the proposed decree would encourage the targeting of lake trout with gill nets.

Gill nets are so efficient as to decimate fish populations in months — not years — when not vigilantly regulated. Yet harvest regulations will only be reviewed every few years, leaving plenty of time for disaster. The new proposal eliminates penalties for violations. The priority is expanded fishing opportunity over resource stewardship.

For Lake Huron’s recovering lake trout, the future is uncertain. The Lake Huron agencies recently agreed that stocking lake trout here is no longer economically viable. If harvest kills off too many adult fish, lake trout reproduction will cease. Worse, the proposal opened the Drummond Island Refuge to gillnet fishing.

If lake trout fail, what then? Will stocking millions of lake trout prove effective? And at what cost?

Like overgrazed pastures, intensively fished gillnet zones will have fewer fish, recreational zones mean more fish (taller grass). The proposal views recreational zones and the Drummond Island Refuge (until now, less heavily fished) as greener pastures to be opened as short-term opportunities for gillnetters.

“Short-term” because, soon, all pastures will be overgrazed.

Anglers cannot compete with gillnets — lake trout and walleye catches become too low to attract anglers. Launch ramps and parking lots empty. Lake Huron has lost most of its salmon. Lake trout are the mainstay of Alpena’s annual Michigan Brown Trout Festival. The implications to Northeast Michigan ports are ominous.

Until now, the DNR has argued that gill nets need to be minimized. Now, they say that the gillnetting won’t hurt lake trout.

So which is true? Are gill nets a serious problem or are they OK, after all? Did the DNR waste $14 million to remove gill nets?

The DNR Fisheries Division has prided itself in its transparency. Annual fishery workshops are held to share information and plans and solicit public comments. But, since the proposed agreement became public, it seems our Fishery Division Great Lakes biologists have been silenced. They are forbidden to answer questions about the proposal.

The next Lake Huron Offshore Fishery Workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, April 11 at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. I urge you to attend.

Let’s see if we can encourage the Fisheries Division to recommit to transparency as we learn more about how the proposed consent decree may affect the future of our Great Lake.

And please share your thoughts with the governor, attorney general, and our delegates from Northeast Michigan to the state House and state Senate.

Jim Johnson is a retired Lake Huron fishery biologist. He now volunteers with the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources.


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