The federal government, the State of Michigan and five American Indian tribes in northern Michigan signed an agreement today aimed at rebuilding fish populations in the upper Great Lakes and improving strained relations between whites and Indians in upstate Michigan.
The pact settles 27 years of litigation over whether the state can restrict Indian fishing, people involved in the negotiations said.
A vibrant national economy has created a boom in vacation homes and tourism here in the northern third of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The accompanying surge in pleasure boating and recreational fishing has increased tensions between whites and Indians, as pleasure boats become dangerously entangled in Indian nets and charter boat operators blame the Indian fishermen for depleting trout and salmon populations.
Some Indian nets have been sabotaged, state officials say. Indian leaders have denied that they are responsible for declining fish stocks and have angrily denounced what they have described as efforts to take away some of the few ancestral rights they retain.
Today’s pact calls for the tribes to reduce sharply their use of large-mesh gill nets, which kill fish of various sizes and species and can entangle boats. The Indians are to replace gill nets with trap nets, which catch fish more discriminately and are less likely to entangle other boats. The state government will pay $17 million to buy boats equipped with trap nets and fishing permits from white-owned companies and give them to Indian fishermen to replace boats with gill nets. The trap-net fishing permits are mainly for remote areas of northwestern Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron, pulling Indian fishermen far from Michigan’s main recreational boating and fishing areas.
The federal government will pay an additional $8.3 million to the five tribal governments. The tribes are expected to use some or all of the money to compensate small-scale Indian fishing operations, which will not receive the trap-net boats but will face restrictions on gill-net fishing for the next 20 years. Use of large-mesh gill nets by non-Indians has been heavily restricted since 1968.
The dispute has been particularly acrimonious here in this Indian community and eight miles west in the mainly white town of Leland. Both towns are on the northwest shore of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, 220 miles northwest of Detroit.
For whites like John Lindenau, who stood on the dock in Leland this morning next to his 30-foot charter fishing boat, the Infinity, the dispute has been about imposing the same rules on Indians that white fishermen must meet. ”We won the Indian wars and gave it all away,” Mr. Lindenau said.
But here in Peshawbestown, on the tiny reservation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the agreement is the cause of considerable bitterness. ”The Grand Traverse Band hesitantly, really hesitantly agreed to sign off on the deal,” said Ardith Chambers, one of seven members of the tribal council, as she sat glumly in her office this afternoon. ”All the state wants to do is take apart treaty rights, and so does the federal government.”
Keith Bradsher, “Michigan Pact Resolves Battle Over Limits on Indian Fishing“, New York Times, August 8, 2000.