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BRIAN MULHERIN/Ludington Daily News File Photo

Anglers Dick and Craig Coleman fish on Manistee Lake a few weeks ago. State sportfishing associations are sparring with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians regarding an extension to a decree that governs fishing throughout most of the state.

A longstanding agreement between five of the state’s Native American tribes and the state itself is set to expire next month, and two parties are at odds over what the next step is going to be.

The 2000 Great Lakes Consent Decree codified a division of most of the state’s fishery among the state and the five sovereign tribes — the Bay Mills Indian Community, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, 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 — that had been in place since 1985. This agreement had in turn applied to a treaty that dates to 1836; the waters covered in the treaty range from the mouth of the Grand River near Grand Rapids all the way to Alpena in Lake Huron, as well as most of the Upper Peninsula.

Under the terms of the decree, the tribes and the state share fishing rights to this territory. The tribes use their allotment mainly for commercial fishing, while the state splits its allotment between commercial fishing and for the use of recreational anglers.

That decree expires Aug. 8, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the parties have not been able to get together to iron out the terms of a new one. Because of that, all parties involved but one made a motion to a federal court to extend the agreement to the end of the calendar year to allow for time to devise a new agreement.

The only exception was the Sault Ste. Marie tribe, which instead has pushed for a shorter extension of 90 days, through Nov. 5. It’s another portion of the tribe’s filing, though, that raised the eyebrows of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The Sault tribe has asked that if a further extension of the 2000 decree beyond 90 days is to be granted, that it not include provisions of the decree that calls for “tribal exclusive zones” — that is, that the five tribes each be granted fishing rights throughout the treaty waters, as opposed to designated home zones for each tribe. This has rankled the MUCC, which issued a press release July 16 entitled “Court filing could end Great Lakes fishing as we know it”.

(Attempts to reach the Sault tribe for comment on this story were unsuccessful; the WLASA president, Michael Schiller, said their organization is not involved in the decree debate.)

The MUCC’s main gripe is that, as they see it, the Sault tribe’s desire to fish throughout the treaty waters as opposed to within its home zone signals that it seeks to use any gear it deems necessary to fish. This includes, most notably, gill nets, which can capture fish en masse and have not been permitted in treaty waters since the 1985 division of the waters.

The MUCC called back to 1979, when a provision similar to what the Sault are calling for now was upheld by a federal court. According to the MUCC, when tribal commercial fishing began, “within months, lake trout stocks in certain areas were depleted by 98 percent.”

However, the Sault tribe put out its own press release the same day pushing hard against the implication it wants to use gill nets, saying its proposed extension would maintain the gear restrictions under the current decree and that the original provision to zone certain parts of the treaty water for certain tribes was to allow those tribes to establish fisheries. The Sault argue that this is no longer necessary, hence its desire to allow all tribes to share in the treaty waters — but the tribe said its proposal would continue to observe the current fish-sharing agreement as noted in the 2000 decree.

“To provide a simple example, if under the current Decree the state gets 60 fish and a particular tribe gets 40 fish in an area, the Sault Tribe’s request is that as of Nov. 6, 2020, the five tribes who share treaty fishing rights will share the 40 fish; the state’s 60 fish will be unaffected,” the tribe said in its press release (italics theirs). “And, in areas where tribes get zero fish due to closures or other restrictions, tribes would continue getting zero fish under the extended Decree.”

The tribe went on, in its release, to accuse MUCC of “fearmongering” for donation money, noting that MUCC’s release ended with a call for donations to “a grassroots fundraiser that will be used to protect Michigan’s sport fishery”.

At least one portion of the dispute should be settled soon, as state district court judge Paul Maloney should soon issue a ruling on whether the proposed extension through Dec. 31 or the Sault’s proposed extension through Nov. 5 will be granted. The MUCC’s release hinted that if the Sault’s extension is the one that is granted, litigation is the likely result. The Dec. 31 extension would result in further negotiations with a previously agreed-upon mediator.