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Commercial Gill Netting In the Great Lakes


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More info on the consent decree and the expansion of gill nets.


A court order from the US District Court Western District of Michigan Northern Division was released on December 2, 2022 that confirms the 5 Tribes involved in the consent decree negotiations have pushed to expand gill nets in the Treaty of 1836 waters and the State of Michigan has agreed to the expansion.    There is a long history of the use of gill nets for commercial fishing in the Great Lakes and it is not good.

Commercial gill net fishing from the 1800’s up to the 1950’s wiped out lake trout, ciscoes, killed millions of sturgeons and severely depressed perch and walleye stocks.  Overfishing by gill nets was a key factor in the extinction of blue pike (from the walleye family) in the Great Lakes.   As soon as Indiana and Illinois banned commercial fishing with gill nets in their waters of Lake Michigan, perch populations started to recover.   The main problem with gill nets is they kill every fish that gets into them regardless if they were the target species or not.   A gill net set for lake trout will kill every salmon that swims into it.   Gill nets are indiscriminate killers and have wiped out fisheries all over the world.

One of the primary focuses and positive outcome of the Consent Decrees of 1985 and 2000 was to fairly share the fishery between the Tribes and sport anglers and bring about a huge reduction in gill nets by converting many tribal commercial fisheries to trap nets.  The State of Michigan agreed to buy out state licensed commercial fishers so they stopped fishing and then provided, at a huge expense to taxpayers, all the boats, nets, and gear to the Tribes.  Trap nets do not kill all fish that enter them like gill nets and non-target species like sturgeon can be released.  Cooperative fisheries management agencies and processes, between the Tribes, Federal Government and the State of Michigan, were created to equally share in the fisheries resources and to ensure that fish stocks remained robust and healthy.   There was a large focus on lake trout rehabilitation followed by efforts to restore sturgeon and cisco.

Over the past 2 decades the 2000 decree worked well, minimized conflict and protected our resources for us and the Tribes.  The impact of zebra and quagga mussels reduced the fertility of the Great Lakes and caused a major disruption to the food web.   As a result, the sportfishing industry and state agencies reacted by reducing salmon stocking and imposing regulations to reduce lake trout harvest.  These efforts were painful to 1000’s of small businesses and port communities that depend on sportfishing, but they worked.  Salmon catch rates hit all-time lows, but the forage base began to recover and so have the salmon in recent years.  It is ironic that in southern Lake Michigan outside of Treaty of 1836 waters and tribal commercial fishing, lake trout are naturally reproducing and are almost fully recovered there, to the point stocking is not needed and lake trout numbers are expanding and self-sufficient.   In the northern treaty waters where there remains heavy tribal commercial fishing pressure and mortality, lake trout are not self-sufficient and require massive federal and state stocking programs.

Whitefish stocks and catch rates are also depressed due to the mussels and the Tribes response has  been to push for more gill nets that will only take more fish and continue their population decline.   Expanding gill net fisheries in treaty waters will only further hurt recovery of lake trout, whtefish, cisco and sturgeon.  They will have a negative impact on an improving salmon fishery.

We have included the complete order released from the court at the end of this post.  It is a long read but provides a lot of insight into the negotiations that have been hidden by the gag order imposed by the parties.   We will break down key points that have come from this document.

The first thing the court order does is say again that it has extended the current treaty from 2000 until complete agreement is reached among all parties.  This is good but it is only temporary, and when you read the rest of the document, it confirms gill netting will be expanded in the new decree. The GLSI has always been concerned that the State will not represent sport anglers and not protect our Great Lakes resources for the future.   The Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources, the primary group representing sport anglers in the negotiation, had been shut out by the State of Michigan recently while the State moves toward a new agreement that clearly looks like it is not protecting our Great Lakes resources.   Expanding commercial gill netting has never resulted in improving fisheries resources.
This exact statement on page 5 and 7 of the court order indicates what we have all feared, the State has agreed to allow more gill netting:

“Under the 2000 Consent Decree, gill net fishing was not permitted in Grids 813 and 814. In negotiating the successor decree, the parties have agreed to open these Grids to gill net fishing”
“Moreover, under the successor decree, the State is allowing thousands more feet of gill net effort per day to the other Tribes: the proposed decree would allow up to three licenses and a total of 12,000 feet of large mesh gill net effort by Little Traverse fishers and two licenses and a total of 12,000 feet of large mesh gill net effort by Sault Tribe fishers. Further, Little Traverse would be allowed to license two fishers each with up to 6,000 feet of net in Little Traverse Bay, and same for Little River Band within its Tribal zone. Finally, the proposed decree places no net effort limitations on Bay Mills fishers.” (see  Page 7 of the court order.

While this indicates the State of Michigan has agreed to expanded gill netting, there were still disputes between the State and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians over the amount of gill nets in Grand Traverse Bay, including permitting use of small mesh gill nets for perch and hook and line commercial fishing.   Here are those differences as contained in the court order.

“A. Permit Requirements for New Gill Net Fishers in Grids 813 & 814
GTB proposal: Permits will be required for Tribal commercial fishers using gill nets in newly opened areas for the first three years after the successor decree takes effect.
State proposal: Permits will be required for Tribal commercial fishers using gill nets in newly opened areas until gill net fishing has occurred in the area for five consecutive years.”

What is most concerning on this issue is that after this initial period requiring the Grand Traverse Band to issue permits for gill netting, once it is over, tribal permits won’t be needed and it could lead to a wide open unregulated tribal gill net fishery.  This could be devastating to the Great Lakes resources in the area. 

B. Net Effort Limitations in Grids 815 & 816
GTB proposal: Gill net effort will be limited to 4,500 feet of gill net in East and West Bay per day.
State proposal: Gill net effort will be limited to 3,600 feet of gill net in East and West Bay per day.”

“C. Small Mesh Gill Net Fishing in the North Half of Grid 616
GTB proposal: This area near Charlevoix will be open to perch fishing with small mesh gill nets year-round.
State proposal: This area will remain closed to perch fishing with small mesh gill nets.”

D. Use of Hook-and-Line Gear for Commercial Fishing
GTB proposal: Recreational hook-and-line fishing gear will be allowed for commercial fishing only within the Grand Traverse Tribal Zone, which includes all waters from Good Harbor Bay up to just south of Charlevoix and all of Grand Traverse Bay.

State proposal: Recreational hook-and-line fishing gear (i.e., rod and reel) will not be allowed for commercial fishing anywhere within 1836 Treaty waters.”

Per the court order released Friday, the presiding judge, Paul L. Maloney, agreed with the GTB proposals and ordered that these proposals will become part of the successor consent decree when it is finalized.

There are more details in the full court order and we encourage you to read all of it but these key points confirm the 5 Tribes want more gill nets in the Great Lakes and the State of Michigan has agreed to it.   There are still more negotiations that will take place before a new decree is finalized and released but this court order confirms that the new decree will allow miles of additional gill nets in the northern Great Lakes. Who knows what else will be included in the final decree but with what is known from this court order with the expansion of commercial gill netting, the future of our Great Lakes resources in Treaty of 1836 waters will be one of conflict and decline.
The GLSI will be carefully following developments and exploring all options including legal action to oppose the expansion of gill nets.   We will continue to support the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources.   We will keep you informed.   

What can you do to help in the fight to protect our Great Lake resources?    We are beginning our annual 2023 membership campaign and your support is critical to allow the GLSI to fight for our sport fishery.    Please consider renewing your membership and joining the GLSI if you’re not a member to help us in this fight.   It only costs $20 dollars for a basic membership.  You can join or renew at this link.

We also recommend supporting the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources.  Get involved with your local clubs that support the coalition.   You can contribute to them here:
Here is the complete court order released on Friday:

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  • EdB changed the title to Commercial Gill Netting In the Great Lakes

Best of luck here.  As a long time Yooper Lake Superior fisherman I can personally discuss gill nets.  One bleach jug on one end.  Losing spoons and other tackle to said poorly marked nets.  On the not so bad end of things, putting on leather gloves and ripping holes in the nets to recover my rigger weights.


If you ever wonder why Yoopers seldom post about their success on the Lake.  The Red Cliff Band watches these places as they plan where to fish.  Just this fall a bunch of  'big mouth can't wait to post morons' found out about a great fall lake trout fishery.  Then had the balls to post we did not know what we had.  They are right on the 'had' part, we knew exactly what we had.  Next fall there will be 35 miles, that is correct MILES of nets there.  It will be impossible to fish among them and the remnant trout  population will be too sparse for the sport troller to have much success in the near future.


They did this about 20 years ago, the fish population did rebound in about 15 years.  At 67 years old, I find it unlikely I will be fishing Superior when that fish population builds back.  


If you happen to personally know any of the big mouth persons, a good nut kick is in order.



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