LANSING — Whose fish are they anyway?
Michigan House lawmakers last week advanced legislation to tighten regulations on Great Lakes commercial fishers, escalating a fight between the long-declining industry and sportfishing groups.
In a series of 7-2 votes on Tuesday, the House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation approved House Bills 4567, 4568 and 4569. The legislation would increase commercial fishing license fees from about $200 to $1,400; exponentially boost fines, which haven’t changed since the 1920s, for illegally keeping fish; and tighten reporting requirements on commercial catches and how fishermen tend their nets— to prevent motor-shredding encounters with charter boats.
The biggest area of contention: The bills also will codify into law a current Department of Natural Resources ban on commercial harvesting of lake trout, walleye, yellow perch and other game fish, reserving them exclusively for anglers.
The Department of Natural Resources backs the legislation, calling it a long-needed update to a century-old commercial fishing code that keeps state officials from closely tracking and prosecuting bad behavior. Sport fishing groups agree and say it’s good policy to prioritize Michigan’s booming recreational fishing industry over the shrinking commercial sector.
“We believe that it’s appropriate that these fisheries are managed as a recreational asset,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which encompases more than 200 hunting, fishing, trapping and other outdoors clubs.
Testifying to lawmakers, she quoted from a study — commissioned by the group — estimating that Michigan’s 1.1 million licensed anglers spur $2.3 billion in commerce each year.
But commercial fishers and proponents call the crackdown unfair, arguing it will reduce Michiganders’ access to freshly caught Great Lakes fish.
“I’m deeply disappointed that our own state department so heavily favored one group over another on this issue,” Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said Tuesday, adding: “People want to be able to eat fresh fish on a plate. Some of them are sportsmen, but maybe they don't want to catch it themselves. Maybe they're elderly. Maybe they're like my family, who doesn't have the time anymore to go out and fish for ourselves.”
The votes sent the bills to the House Ways and Means Committee, where they need approval before flowing to the House floor.
Meanwhile separate legislation more favorable to commercial fishing interests — Senate Bill 389 — would give commercial fishers access to lake trout, walleye and yellow perch. It has yet to draw a committee hearing.
Here’s what Michiganders should know about the fish fight.
Who is proposing the House legislation?
Reps. Jim Lilly, a Republican from Macatawa; Jack O’Malley, R- Lake Ann, and Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet, are sponsoring HB 4567-4569, the legislation that advanced last week.
Lilly said the legislation has been “years in the making.” While the proposal included some compromises between anglers and commercial fishermen, he added: “I acknowledge there are some areas where [compromise] does not appear to be possible.”
The sponsors of dueling SB 309 include: Sens. Kevin Daley, R-Lapeer; Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway; Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan; Kenneth Horn, R-Frankenmuth; and Curtis VanderWall, R-Ludington.
That bill would open up lake trout and walleye to commercial fishers, allowing them to catch 10 percent to 20 percent of those fish across much of the state, leaving the rest for anglers. Saginaw Bay would have special regulations; family fisheries could take 20 percent to 30 percent of catchable walleye each year, and 10 percent to 20 percent of all other fish.
How many state-licensed fishers operate in the Great Lakes, and what may they catch now?
Michigan licenses 21 mostly family run commercial fishing businesses on the Great Lakes, only 13 of make all of their income from fishing.
That’s a far-cry from the heyday of Great Lakes fishing, early last century, when thousands of commercial fishermen worked the Great Lakes and tens of thousands more Michiganders drew income from the industry. That was before overfishing, pollution and the invasion of the foreign sea lamprey and alewife nearly wiped out native fish. Michigan is still rehabilitating lake trout and other game fish — through stocking and bag limits, reserving access to anglers.
In 2017, commercial fishermen harvested about 2.5 million pounds of fish worth about $4 million. Whitefish dominated those sales, which also included small amounts of channel catfish, white bass and goldfish.
For decades, DNR regulations have barred commercial harvest of popular fish such as lake trout, walleye and yellow perch across the Great Lakes. One exception: Regulators allow yellow perch fishing in Saginaw Bay.
What would the legislation change?
House Bills 4567-4569 would enshrine those rules into law, which commercial fishing groups say would be harder to change if future fish populations thrive. The bills would also nix yellow perch fishing on Saginaw Bay, dealing a blow to the five commercial families licensed to fish the bay’s perch since 1968.
“We think that's a regulatory taking,” Scott Everett, legislative director for the Michigan Fish Producers Association, told lawmakers last week. “There is no compensation in these bills for the removal of those licenses.”
The legislation would leave commercial fishermen mainly to catch whitefish and less popular species such as bloater chubs, common carp, certain catfish, white perch and white bass.
Who pays for Michigan fisheries management?
For a large part, anglers do.
Nearly 40 percent of Michigan sport fishing relies on stocked fish. With the federal government, the DNR spends millions each year stocking 25 million fish in more than 1,000 locations. But anglers generate roughly $30 million per year — through state license fees and federal taxes on gear — to manage those fisheries, according to Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Trout Unlimited's Michigan chapter, an angler group that backs the bills that advanced Tuesday.
License fees on the few remaining commercial fishing businesses don’t come close to paying the $1 million to $2 million each year to manage that industry, Burroughs testified at a hearing in June.
Angler groups point to those numbers — and ongoing ecological challenges to Great Lakes sport fish — as a reason why Michigan should go all out to protect sportsfish, including tightening oversight of commercial operations.
Aren’t whitefish numbers declining, too?
White fish populations are shrinking in some Great Lakes stretches. Those trends coincide with exploding populations of invasive zebra and quagga mussels that experts suspect are sucking up tiny organisms whitefish eat.
That’s partially why commercial fishing businesses want access to other fish. In some locations, they suspect that DNR-stocked fish and scaring away whitefish. Among those critics is Joel Petersen, who fishes off of Lake Michigan’s Manitou islands.
He and others want permission to keep and sell lake trout that inevitably swim into their nets that target whitefish. Under current regulations, commercial fishers must throw back those fish, which often die anyway.
Sportfishing groups contend that commercial crews should change their practices to avoid catching trout. Additionally, granting commercial access to lake trout would eat into the state’s quotas under its treaties with Michigan tribes — reducing how many fish any other Michigander could catch.
Wait, how does tribal fishing factor in?
Tribal governments have regulated their own fisheries in Michigan since successfully asserting their treaty rights to fish in the 1970s.
A 2000 consent decree over how Michigan and five Great Lakes tribes cooperate over fishing rights sets broad quotas on various fish — how much the state and tribes can catch. Only then do the state and tribes allocate fish among various interests, such as anglers and commercial fishers.
In some parts of the Great Lakes, Michigan has already exceeded annual quotas on lake trout. In Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, for instance, the state Natural Resources Commission in April approved emergency limits on anglers of just one trout per day.
That’s why sport fishing groups say expanding options to commercial fishers — at least on lake trout — would not work. It would force additional deep cuts in how many fish anglers could take to ensure Michigan honors tribal treaty rights.
But the 2000 consent decree expires in Aug. 2020, and Michigan and tribal regulators are now negotiating a new agreement. That could change the number of fish Michigan’s anglers and commercial fishers wrangle over.