A long-drawn-out saga for the Michigan Commercial Fishing industry’s legal and legislative drama has ended. The Michigan Senate Natural Resources Committee, chaired by State Senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), has been working for over nine years to modernize the Michigan Commercial Fishing law, which has not been significantly revised since 1929. The Legislature sought to limit the DNR’s ability to create commercial fishing rules in favor of codified language set by the Michigan legislature. This month, Governor Gretchen Whitmer approved legislation that gives regulatory relief to Michigan’s 13 surviving commercial fishermen.
According to the announcement by the Governor, Senate Bill 251 amends commercial fishing laws to raise the depth at which certain nets can be placed, adjust the days when whitefish can be fished, and allow a designee of the Department of Natural Resources to inspect fish for scientific reasons.
Background of The Michigan Commercial Fishing Law
The measure codifies some commercial fisheries rights and rules in Michigan, bringing a conclusion to a chronology that began in 2013.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been attempting to push a series of laws through the state legislature. The Commercial Fishing Bills House Bill trio; 4567, 4568, and 4569 (“The Trio”) were “tie-barred,” which means that if one bill fails, the others fall as well. This package of proposals would have raised fines, mandated the submission of GPS coordinates for net sites, and mandated daily harvest reporting. It would have also introduced licensing prices and prolonged commercial fishing limits on perch, walleye, and lake trout in Michigan waterways. The legislation was meant to modernize government regulations dating back to the 1920s.
However, they were controversial with commercial fishing organizations since they would raise taxes and fines while significantly limiting the types of fish caught in the Great Lakes. According to fishermen, whitefish are often located more than 120 feet below the lake’s surface and maybe captured up to 150 feet.
Showdown With the DNR Over the Michigan Commercial Fishing Law
The DNR allegedly pushed commercial fisheries to support the legislation, claiming that without them, they would be unable to continue delivering fresh orders (permissions and rules dictated by the DNR) for the fishing season, which would make their operations viable. However, the fishing industry declined to back the law. As a result, the Trio of bills was lost in the state senate in 2019, but that wasn’t the end of commercial fishermen’s problems with the DNR.
In late 2020, Michigan’s DNR director Dan Eichinger submitted a regulation modification limiting fishing in water deeper than 80 feet and a change in the Whitefish season, which would now run from October 1 to December 10. There is no fishing for whitefish during the spawning season, which runs from November 1 to November 30. Fishermen said that they couldn’t catch fish at those depths except over a brief period in the spring.
According to Interlochen Public Radio, DNR communications said that the regulation changes and delays in renewing commercial fishing permits result from the Legislature’s refusal to update the statutes.
Michigan Commercial Fishing Operations File Suit
The Michigan Fish Producers Association representing the few commercial fishermen that remain in Michigan, sued the state’s Department of Natural Resources over changes to industry rules. Commercial fishers were also informed by the Michigan DNR that the agency has yet to renew commercial fishing licenses for 2021.
Michigan commercial fishing licenses are typically issued in December for the upcoming season. However, those licenses were not given.
“I asked them if I could fish in 2021 in January, and they said no,” says Robert Ruleau III of Ruleau Bros. Inc., a seventh-generation fisherman in Menominee.
The lawsuit against the DNR and members of its leadership was filed in January 2021. The case claimed that with this order, the DNR had violated the First Amendment rights of commercial fishermen.
Thumbwind Takes Action
Sometimes writing a letter to your state Senator gets things moving. On January 7, I sent an email to state senator Dan Lauwers calling attention to an issue affecting an essential industry in Michigan; Commercial Fishing. I learned that recent rules instituted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had, in effect, shut down the state’s commercial fishing industry for the remaining 13 fishing operations in 2021. Since there was no renewed legislation on commercial fishing, the DNR took the position that licenses would be withheld this year.
Besides bankrupting these businesses, including the Bay Port Fish Company, this lack of effort by the DNR will affect restaurants and tourism in our state as we recover from the covid pandemic.
On January 19, 2021, Senators Dan Lauwers, Kevin Daley, Curt VanderWall, and Representative Phil Green sent an inquiry to the MDNR director Daniel Eichinger asking that commercial fishing licenses be reinstated until legislation can be introduced, passed by both the House and the Senate, and signed by the Governor. In addition, the senators demanded that the Department needed to maintain the 2020 status quo of all commercial fishing licenses and permits. A copy of the legislative letter can be had on this link. In addition, the entire contents of the senators’ letter to Director Eichinger can be found in our article 4 Michigan Legislators Demand DNR Restore Commercial Fishing Licenses.
Faced with Opposition, DNR Suddenly Reverses Decision
In February 2021, the DNR reversed its decision, issuing an order that reinstated the regular permissions and requirements that the initial ruling would have removed. However, the Fish Producers Association had a history of problems with the DNR and realized that this would most likely not be its end.
Senate Bill 251 would amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to restrict the DNR’s authority to issue Fisheries Orders to manage the state-licensed commercial fishery.
Previously, the DNR had released new orders every fishing season, stipulating what the fisheries can and can’t do. However, these orders defer to Legislature, meaning they can’t break or contradict the law.
The law makes several changes, including putting current fisheries orders into statute. These include:
- Allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to suspend, abridge, extend, or modify a State law governing commercial fish by emergency order, if the Director of the DNR, in concurrence with the Natural Resources Commission, made scientific findings that an imminent danger existed to the protection, preservation, maintenance, and harvesting of fish.
- Specify the length of time an emergency order could remain in effect.
- Allow specific pound and trap nets to be set at a depth of no more than 150 instead of 80 feet.
- Require the DNR to issue a permit for a trawl to a commercial fisher if that fisher had been given a permit for a trawl before January 1, 1970.
- Prohibit a person from taking whitefish from Lake Michigan or Lake Huron from November 1, instead of October 1, to December 10.
- Allow a designee of the DNR acting in compliance with a permit issued by the DNR to take fish for the purpose of fish culture and scientific investigation, to hold fish to take spawn from the fish, and to sell ripe or unripe fish to defray expenses incurred in taking, fertilizing, and planting spawn from the fish.
- Now that Senate Bill 251 has been signed by the Governor, the regulations are now law and, therefore, can’t be changed or contradicted by any order from the DNR.
This nine-year drama in Lansing is the most recent in a long line of disputes between commercial fisheries and the DNR. Michigan Commercial Fishers endeavor to offer essential, local fish for people who are unable or don’t have the equipment to go fishing.
The bill hopes to curtail Canada from dominating the Michigan market. Today, Canadian fisheries caught most of the perch and walleye sold in Michigan and served in restaurants.
Lawsuit Expected To Be Dropped, However Michigan Commercial Fishing Continues to Decline
The bill renders the case moot, and it is anticipated to be dismissed. The demise of Michigan’s commercial fishing sector, on the other hand, is no accident. According to the DNR’s website, in the 1960s, the Fisheries Division focused on managing Great Lakes fisheries for recreational fishing and wanted a reduced role for commercial fisheries. The state wanted recreational fishers with portable fishing rod to have an advantage. As a result, the Department of Natural Resources implemented administrative rules in the late 1960s that established development zones for recreational fishing around the Great Lakes, where commercial fishing was forbidden. As a result, from 339 in 1969 to 176 in 1970, the number of commercial fishing permits issued declined. Today, 65 licenses are available, but only roughly 13 are used.
Michigan’s Economic Value of Fishing
According to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries in the Great Lakes are worth more than $7 billion per year and sustain more than 75,000 employees. The commercial fishery is built on lake whitefish, walleye, yellow perch, and ciscoes. Recreational fishing includes salmon, walleye, trout, and muskellunge (among many other species).