The old agreement was set to expire in August 2020, but has been extended multiple times as parties struggle to cut a new deal.
Under the old decree, most of the whitefish in parts of the three lakes goes to five tribes, the Bay Mills Indian Community, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
State-regulated anglers get most of the salmon, while lake trout are split roughly evenly.
“We do have a lot of members that, that is their livelihood,” said Beverly Carrick, interim director of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, a group that represents the tribes.
“That’s the only job they have to feed their families.”
She declined to discuss the negotiations. But in a filing to the judge last month, negotiators reported they were “approaching consensus” on a new agreement, but needed more time to finalize details.
In 1979, the U.S. District Court ruled that Native American tribes that were part of the 1836 Treaty of Washington that ceded 16 million acres in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas have a viable treaty right to fish in the parts of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior.
Six years later, the state, federal government and Michigan’s tribes entered the first consent decree dividing fishing rights, which was re-settled in 2000.
In the past two decades, thought, invasive quagga mussels have dramatically altered the lakes and their fish communities, complicating the pathway to a new deal.
Simply put, said Mark Ebener, a longtime Great Lakes biologist who has studied those shifts, “the (quagga) have pulled the rug out from underneath the food web.”
The mussels blanket the bottom of lakes Michigan and Huron, stripping plankton and algae out of the water and robbing parts of the lakes of nutrients that fish need to survive.
That has reduced the overall biomass of fish in the lakes, leaving fishing interests competing for a slice of a smaller pie.
Annual harvests of whitefish, key to the livelihood of tribal and state-regulated commercial fishers, have declined from 6.3 million pounds in 2011 to less than 4 million in 2018.
The prized chinook salmon have plummeted in lakes Michigan and Lake Huron.
Twenty years ago, anglers caught 13 chinook salmon per 100 hours of fishing. Now, it is 8 salmon per 100 hours of fishing, said Jay Wesley, DNR Fisheries Division Lake Michigan Basin coordinator.
In 2000, there was about 20.9 million pounds of chinook in the Great Lakes and now it’s down to 5.5 million pounds, according to Wesley.
The main reason for the decline is that its main prey, alewives, have been dying out as invasive species filtering out the lakes’ nutrients.
According to Wesley, there were about 661 million pounds of alewife in 2000 but the population “hit rock bottom” in 2016 when the biomass was reduced to 110 million pounds before bouncing to 220 million pounds now.
And climate change is heating the lakes, adding more uncertainty about the future.
Whitefish spawn on ice-covered reefs each fall. When warm temperatures melt that protective layer, “wave action can really disrupt and kill the eggs,” said Ed Rutherford, a fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
Ebener, who formerly worked as a biologist for inter-tribal organizations in the Great Lakes, said plummeting whitefish numbers pose an existential threat to tribal anglers. Many will go out of business, he said, unless they can get permission to fill their nets with other species such as walleye and salmon.
“Just focusing on one species, you’re not going to make it,” he said.
Negotiations are intensifying because “fisheries without a doubt have changed since the last consent decree was negotiated,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which is part of the coalition representing recreational and charter fishing interests.