A big fight in Lansing over fishing rules on the Great Lakes
Dana Serafin still hauls in 20,000-pound boatloads of whitefish to supply regional restaurants and markets, but in recent years, the Saginaw Bay fisherman has found it more difficult to fill his orders.
Native whitefish, the main livelihood for Serafin and other Great Lakes commercial fishers, have been in decline for years amid changes to the food web, replaced in Serafin’s nets by healthier populations of walleye and lake trout that he’s not allowed to keep.
“We see the small fish coming up,” Serafin said of whitefish as he piloted his newest boat, Independence, to check nets this week in the shallow water near Point Au Gres, “but they never make it to adult size.”
Chinook salmon, once a favorite of recreational anglers on lakes Michigan and Huron, have also plummeted in Lake Michigan, and all but disappeared from Lake Huron.
And for just about as long, Michigan’s fishing interest groups and government regulators have been at loggerheads over how to respond. State-regulated commercial anglers have long clamored for access to walleye and lake trout to offset the drop in whitefish, while regulators and recreational fishing groups favor increased fees and tighter regulations on the state’s commercial fishing industry.
As negotiations drag into the new legislative session, things have taken a turn for the ugly: Following a short-lived attempt by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to add new limits to where, when and how commercial operators could fish this year, an industry group is suing the state as Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, pushes a bill that would weaken the DNR’s regulatory power.
Recreational fishing groups are decrying the McBroom bill as a stunt, and encouraging legislative allies to recirculate DNR-backed reforms that failed to pass last session.
And quietly in the background, confidential negotiations on a consent decree that determines how Michigan and five Native American tribes split up fishing rights in treaty-protected waters have repeatedly blown through deadlines.
The bottom line, said Bill Winowiecki, president of the Michigan Charter Boat Association, which represents boat captains who cater to recreational anglers: “The pie is smaller and smaller, and everybody’s fighting.”
Lakes out of balance
Today’s Great Lakes have changed dramatically since the latter half of the last century, when Michigan and treaty tribes established existing methods of divvying up access to Great Lakes fish.
For decades, commercial operations, both state-regulated and tribal, have split most of the whitefish catch. Recreational anglers get most salmon, and tribes and recreationalists share access to lake trout.
The approach provided certainty and helped restabilize fish stocks that had been devastated by overfishing and invasive species. Then invasive zebra and quagga mussels made their way into the lakes, upending the food chain — including the whitefish populations that commercial fleets depend upon.
“That’s what has put people in conflict,” said Dan O’Keefe, an educator with the Michigan Sea Grant Extension. “The balance that worked so well has just broken down.”
Today, quagga mussels carpet much of the lakebottom in four of the five lakes (all but Superior). They have stripped lakes Huron and Michigan of nutrients and plankton. The tiny, shrimp-like diporeia that whitefish and other species like to eat have all but disappeared, and the damage has rippled upwards.
Whitefish are one of many victims of the changes. Alewives, an invasive baitfish beloved by salmon, also tanked, bringing predators down with them.
Some species, though, have found a niche in the new lake ecosystem. Walleye in Saginaw Bay have become so abundant they’re suppressing the perch population. Lake trout have rebounded too, a result of aggressive government stocking efforts and other factors.
But even with those bright spots, said Annie Scofield, a life scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, Lakes Michigan and Huron are now “generally lower production,” supporting a lower volume of fish overall.
For state-regulated commercial fishers and Native American operators regulated by tribal governments, it is nearing the point of crisis. Whitefish make up almost three-quarters of their combined annual catch by volume, but harvests declined from 6.3 million pounds in 2001 to less than 4 million pounds in 2018 — a 37 percent reduction in less than two decades.
That’s why Serafin and other commercial fishers are angling for something new to catch. At the very least, he said, he wants to be able to keep the walleye and trout that swim into his nets, instead of throwing them to the seagulls that swarm his boat.
Tribal fishing interests are also navigating the food chain changes as they renegotiate the 2000 consent decree.
If state-licensed commercial businesses go under, said Doug Craven, natural resources director for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, it could harm tribal operators, too: As small businesses in largely rural areas, they depend on one another to achieve economies of scale, making it easier to access to wholesalers, trucking services and other resources to get their product to market.
Craven said he believes there are enough walleye and trout in the waters to give commercial operators some limited access. But he also agrees with recreationalists and the DNR about the need to modernize and tighten Michigan’s commercial regulations.
“We’re trying to move away from a zero-sum equation,” he said. Between the mussels, climate change, pollution and other existential threats to the Great Lakes food chain, he said, “we’re really going to need to work together, such that there’s a fishery at all for any of us.”
New battles brewing
Both commercial and recreational interests pushed bills last legislative session that failed to pass: An industry-supported bill that would have entitled commercial operators to a share of the trout and walleye died in committee. A DNR and recreation-supported proposal to increase fines and fees while tightening regulations made it through the House, before dying in the lame-duck legislative session after November elections.
Backers of the recreation-supported package, which among other things would have raised annual license fees and fines for illegal harvest and required operators to share more data about what they catch and where they set nets, said the updates would add badly-needed oversight to an industry governed by outdated laws that don’t reflect modern species management, while adding protections for fish prized by recreational anglers.
They blamed McBroom, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, for holding the bill until late in the session, then introducing more than 130 amendments.
“There was no time to read and discuss them,” said Winowiecki, of the Michigan Charter Boat Association.
McBroom contends he was seeking compromise, but “the message back from the (Department of Natural Resources) was, we're not interested.”
Fresh off legislative defeat, state fishery managers used their administrative power last winter to reduce the depth at which some commercial operators could set their nets and shorten the whitefish season by a month, among other changes.
Officials said they were merely bringing the commercial fleet in compliance with state law. The way the DNR had long managed commercial whitefish operators, with deeper fishing depths and a longer season, conflicted with fishing regulations outlined in law.
Regulators said at the time that they had hoped to clear up the conflict with the bill package last session, but chose to act administratively after the legislation failed.
The Michigan Fish Producers Association, the commercial industry group, saw it as retaliation designed to put its members out of business.
As COVID-19 shut down many businesses, said Amber Petersen, secretary-treasurer of the association and operator of the Fish Monger’s Wife in Muskegon, “we were told we were essential: ‘Hey, please help us get some food.’” The DNR move to impose new fishing restrictions, she said, felt like “hypocrisy at its highest form.”
The group sued, and the agency quickly dropped the new commercial limits.
But commercial groups say they’re not dropping their lawsuit.
Unless the industry sends a clear message to state regulators, Serafin said, “they’ll do it to us every year.”
DNR officials declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.
As the suit works through the legal system, commercial fishing advocates are working with McBroom and other allies to push a bill that would lock existing fishing practices into state law and weaken the DNR’s ability to regulate.
Current law allows DNR officials to change fishing regulations whenever they deem it necessary. Under McBroom’s bill, the agency would first need to get partisan appointees on the Natural Resources Commission to agree that there is scientific proof of “imminent danger” to the fishery.
McBroom called it a stopgap measure designed to “hold the status quo” until the two sides can reach a compromise. But agency officials warn of unintended consequences.
In a March 23 letter, DNR Director Dan Eichinger said the bill would hinder the agency’s ability to respond to changing dynamics in the lakes. Moreover, he said, the bill “does not sufficiently address the need to modernize and simplify the regulatory framework for state-licensed commercial fishing.”
Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, who co-sponsored part of the DNR-backed package that died last session, said he expects similar legislation to emerge again this session, likely teeing up another long and contentious round of negotiations.
He has support from recreational groups, who say they’re not obligated to share fish to keep the commercial industry alive.
Dennis Eade, executive director of the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association, a recreational group, compared the dwindling commercial fleet to the buggy whip industry that died when automobiles overtook horses as a preferred mode of transportation.
Given the dramatic changes in the Great Lakes, the backbreaking nature of the work, and technological advancements in aquaculture, he said, Michigan’s Great Lakes commercial fishing industry is “not something that has a long shelf life.”
Advocates for recreational fishing also argue they have a bigger impact on the state’s economy: Between the gear they buy, the hotels they frequent, and other spending, recreational anglers contribute $2.3 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
Commercial fishing, recreationalist argue, pulls far more fish out of the Great Lakes while contributing far less economic value.
Last year, state figures show, state-licensed commercial boats sold about $4.2 million worth of fish.
But Serafin, the Lake Huron fisherman, said those statistics don’t account for the harder-to-quantify value he and Michigan’s dozen other full-time commercial operators offer: Their industry, too, supports tourism. And it provides those without access to a fishing boat the opportunity to eat wild-caught Michigan fish.
Legislators say they’re hoping for compromise. But common ground appears scarce.
McBroom, who controls the Senate Natural Resources Committee that any fishing bills would likely need to clear before reaching the Senate floor, said he supports raising fees and ramping up monitoring of “bad actors.” But only in exchange for commercial access to trout and walleye.
Recreational anglers note that their fishing licenses and taxes on fishing gear help the government pay for trout stocking and habitat improvement efforts. Last year, according to DNR figures, 1.2 million recreational anglers fished in Michigan.
Winowiecki, of the Michigan Charter Boat Association, said he feels for state-licensed commercial fishers who are struggling, but they’re not putting any fish in the lake, and the lake trout population isn’t yet robust enough to withstand more fishing pressure.
“Mother nature’s trying to repair itself, but it’s going to take a couple more (generations),” he said.
After decades of stocking, the fish have begun to naturally reproduce, but likely not at rates high enough to self-sustain the fishery, scientists said.
If the two sides can’t reach agreement, Eade of the recreational fishing group, said he is content to wait it out. The recreationalists have the political upper hand, he said, and if McBroom gets re-elected next year, he’ll be term-limited out of the Senate in 2027.
“We’ll get a new chairman of the Natural Resources Committee who's willing to work with all sides,” he said.
While negotiations remain at an impasse, the whitefish are showing no signs of a comeback. That makes Serafin nervous that the few remaining commercial vessels will disappear along with the fish.
“How much more can we give up?” he said as he watched his crew pull dozens of walleye out of the nets earlier this week, tossing them back to waiting seagulls.
“If something keeps happening to the whitefish, we’re gone.”
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.