ROGERS CITY — A proposal to change fish harvest rules could decimate the fisheries surrounding Northeast Michigan, imperiling the economies of fishing-reliant communities, local fishing specialists say.
A proposed revision to an agreement between Native American tribes, the state, and the federal government, released last week, would allow tribal fishermen to harvest more lake trout, a species anglers in the Alpena area expect to find in its waters.
The revision could mean few of the species — still in recovery after past trauma — live long enough to reproduce. That could strike a devastating blow to local port towns that invested in their harbors with the expectation of a healthy fishery, said Jim Johnson, biological advisor to the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources.
Though party to negotiations about the proposed changes, Johnson and others in the coalition have been bound by a confidentiality agreement until a judge last week opened the redesigned agreement for public comment.
Now, the public knows what’s been going on behind closed doors, and northern Michiganders should be concerned, said Johnson, of Ossineke.
The tentative deal, regulating commercial and sport fishing in areas of lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, would broaden the areas where tribal commercial and sport fishermen can harvest fish and allow increased use of gill nets, which critics say indiscriminately catch and kill too many fish.
Communities like Rogers City — which has invested millions of dollars in its marina on the promise of a healthy fishery attracting anglers and their accompanying tourism dollars — will feel the pinch if the lake trout population dries up because of the proposed treaty changes, Johnson said.
No fish would also spell disaster for local commercial fisheries, he said.
“The economic wellbeing, the livelihoods of these commercial fishermen are at stake, here,” Johnson said. “They depend on sustainable fisheries. If you put sustainability first, you’re going to be OK.”
In the 1980s, a federal judge established gill net-free zones around Rogers City, Traverse City, and other towns, encouraging those communities to plan ahead for a strong recreational fish population, said Frank Krist, who works with the coalition and lives in Rogers City.
As the Michigan Department of Natural Resources stocked salmon and other fish, Rogers City, like other communities, invested in its lakefront, pouring millions of dollars into its harbor.
Rogers City expanded its marina in 1994 at a cost of $3.2 million, of which the city borrowed $900,000. Since then, the city has paid large sums for marina dredging and new equipment, on top of operating costs of about $350,000 per year, Krist said.
With the decline of a formerly strong salmon population in the area, many recreational anglers compete for one species — and, if gill nets keep lake trout from maturing and reproducing, the effects could wreak havoc not only for small towns but for all of Lake Huron, said Krist, who represents the Hammond Bay Area Anglers Association and chairs the state’s Lake Huron Citizen’s Fishery Advisory Committee.
Mussels and other invasive species have decimated the Lake Huron whitefish population, which can no longer sustain a profit for commercial fisheries.
The proposed decree allows tribal commercial fishermen to shift their sights to lake trout, even though that species has not yet recovered to a sustainable level after near collapse decades ago.
Conservation and restocking efforts have reinvigorated the species, but it is still in recovery mode and can’t take an increase in fishing pressure, Johnson said.
The agreement would allow gill net fishing in areas previously protected from the nets that hang in the water like a wall, ensnaring fish and resulting in mostly dead fish or those unable to be returned to the water.
Other trapping options allow commercial fishermen to return lake trout to the water, alive.
The decree in its current form, before the proposed changes, sets strict limits on the amount of lake trout harvested by tribal fishermen.
The prohibition of gill nets in certain zones made lake trout in those areas more likely to live long enough to spawn, increasing the species’ viability and giving anglers more fish to catch. The zones also protected the lake trout from the southern end of Lake Huron that travel north to reproduce, Krist said.
Should the proposed changes become official, gill nets near port towns would mean recreational anglers in town on vacation won’t catch their trophy fish, and that means they will stop coming, Johnson warned.
Unsustainable harvest levels “sink all boats” — at best, hurting the fish population, and, at worst, driving both the recreational and commercial fisheries to economic extinction, Johnson said. “I think, with the proposed decree, the latter is a very likely outcome.”
The federal judge overseeing the negotiations said he would review objections before he makes a final decision and implements the revised decree. The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources has until Jan. 20 to object to the changes — which it will do, Krist said.
The revision prohibits commercial fishing in a specified zone near the Rogers City harbor and near the Hammond Bay Harbor of Refuge.
The agreement also protects fish within a three-tenths mile radius of the mouth of the Thunder Bay River in Alpena County and Ocqueoc and Swan rivers in Presque Isle County.
Four tribal governments involved in the treaty signed off on the revisions. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which has joined the previous deals, has filed a motion seeking the authority to regulate its own fishing.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.