>Fishing for answers (June 07 MNA)

Posted: June 7, 2007 in Feature Stories

Associate Editor

Lake Michigan is the main tourist attraction for Manistee in the summer because of its spectacular sunsets and inviting beaches, but also because of the fantastic sport fishing opportunities to be had on the big lake. So it’s no surprise how protective the fishermen can be, who make Manistee their main port of call.
What has local fishermen concerned these days is the entry of a new type of fishing out on the lake this summer — because the waters of Manistee are in a state of change with commercial fishing now underway, as a venture by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
• • •
This business expansion will have five commercial fishing boats operating out of Manistee, and when completed, it is hoped it will bring up to 100 jobs to the area for tribal and non-tribal people alike. Currently, the operation employs about 25.
The structured fishing coalition is made up of commercial fishers from the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and is based in Manistee, but also operates out of Ludington and Muskegon, fishing the waters of Lake Michigan from Grand Haven north to Arcadia as part of what is known as the Treaty Fishing Zone, established in the 2000 Consent Decree. They are also proposing to fish in the intertribal waters that extend north from Frankfort across to Escanaba.
“We want to protect our rights as tribal fishermen,” said Don Stone, who, along with his sons, was key in getting an accord created and presented to the tribe to fund the operation. “It’s something we had all along that’s never been taken away from us, and traditionally our people supported themselves — made their livelihoods and existence — on fishing in one form or another.”
The president of the Manistee County Sport Fishing Association, Kevin Hughes, and Howard Vaas, representing Manistee Area Charter Boats, were part of a recent meeting held with the commercial fishermen to educate the public about the venture.
“Our biggest concern is safety,” says Hughes. “They have their right to fish out there, but our concern is being able to fish and not impeding the safety of recreational fishermen.”
Hughes is optimistic so far.
“They’re doing a good job of trying to mark (the nets),” he said.
Regardless, many sport fishermen are worried that the public may steer clear of fishing in the area due to a fear of the nets, and the perception that it may be less safe to troll the waters where they are set.
“The professional guys like ourselves, we’re pretty knowledgeable and have good navigation equipment,” said Hughes.
“But I’m concerned about ma and pa — and the guy that comes from Rogers City, or the the guy who comes from Harrisville. A lot of those people came to Manistee last year because their fishing (Lake Huron) wasn’t so good. If all of the sudden people are scared to go out there because of the net situation, that’s not good for the whole economy.”
That’s why all of the fishermen seem to feel that the proper education of the public is key to the success of the situation.
And that’s one of the prime reasons for participation in a running dialogue of the sport fishermen with the commercial fishing operation — to gain information on how the nets used by the tribal fishermen will be marked, mapping procedures planned so that the charter captains would know where the nets are located, and an update on the posting of GPS coordinates of the nets on a Website and in other public places to assist local fishermen and boaters.
The tribal fishermen have promised to pass all of this information along. An agreement was also reached on posting information on the nets themselves, and assisting recreational fishermen to learn how to navigate safely around nets.
“They say they want the spirit of cooperation,” says Hughes. “And I think we’ve had that. We’ve had some good dialogue. Time will tell. The bottom line is, rhetoric is fine, but action speaks louder than words.
“We’re just taking a wait and see policy; see how well they’re marked, and are they trying to share the fishery. We’ve got to be able to have some coastline to troll out there unimpeded. I’ve been urging my members to be patient, to give it a chance — we should be able to co-exist.”
And the commercial fishermen say that they can and will work to co-exist. In 2000, the Little River Band agreed not target any fish that is caught by sport fishers (i.e., trout, salmon); and not to authorize the use of large mesh gill nets in Lake Michigan from the Manistee/Benzie County line south to Grand Haven.
They are, however, allowed to keep a certain amount of this “by-catch,” (non-targeted fish) legally, if they choose to do so.
“We’re trying to catch whitefish,” said fisherman Ken King, who is also a consultant to the fishing operation. “We’re not trying to catch brown trout or steelhead. I can count on one hand the number of salmon I’ve caught, and I’ve been fishing for 20 years. It’s not what we’re in business for. We’re just honest guys trying to make an honest living.”
They also say they don’t want to push sport fishermen out of their favorite spots if at all possible.
“We had set nets up in a place called ‘The Barrel,’ just outside of Arcadia. We had one of the charter boat captains come in and explain to us that was a favorite area of fishermen,” says Don Stone.
Stone decided to pull his nets out of that area as a result of the information.
“We’re not going to be setting there anymore,” he said. “If we had known ahead of time, we wouldn’t have set there.”
The commercial fishermen say that they want to work with others as much as possible, and to ensure that the fishing is managed properly.
“A methodical approach to commercial fisheries, in respect of charter, and what we do — everyone’s going to have a certain amount of responsibility to maintain the (fish) herd,” said Levi Stone.
“And that’s our job as individuals, not to abdicate too much, but to take enough to earn a living off of and leave enough so that it’s there for the next guy. Once there’s human intervention, you have an obligation to manage it.”
The trap net operations are limited to 12 nets per boat and the small mesh gill net operations are limited to 24,000 feet of net per operation. Tribal trap net fishers are only allowed to target and retain whitefish (19 inches and larger) and menominee. Small mesh gill net fishers may only target and retain bloater chubs.
The fishers are required to release all other species back to the lake. Commercial trap net fishers are required to observe a spawning closure from noon on Nov. 6 through noon of Nov. 29 of each year to protect the fish stocks. All trap nets must be either removed from the water, or tied closed.
Tribal Natural Resource Department director, Jimmie Mitchell, has volunteered to take responsibility over the commercial fishing program, which includes monitoring the fishing activities and mandatory catch reports. “Tribal fishing with nets is culturally inherent to our people,” Mitchell said. “Fishing in this old way has been fraught with controversy over previous years, but fishing is central to our identity as Indian people.”
And the fishermen themselves feel that they are doing their best to make the situation work for both sides.
“By going above and beyond the required markings, and marking every single amount of rigging we have on that net, we’re doing the best we can to avail them (other fishermen) of what’s there,” said fisherman Levi Stone.
“I think they (the public) need to be educated on the gear, and how the gear works,” said fisherman Mike Kerborsky, another consultant for the project. “So they can have an understanding of what’s going on out there.”
Some fishermen who are familiar with netting operations and how to navigate them even fish near the nets, the commercial fishermen say.
“Once they get familiar with them, they love them,” said Levi Stone. “There’s a guy in Ludington who just tears it up in tournaments fishing around the nets.”
CPO Mike Jensen of Coast Guard Station Manistee believes that the net markings are adequate and he hasn’t seen any problems, so far, with the operation.
“We were out there the other day, and it seemed to me that they were marked well enough that I wasn’t getting into danger with them,” said Jensen. “I know that the tribal police monitors (them) — they have regulations set in place for what type of markings they’re supposed to display — so I know they’re enforcing that. To me, it seemed adequate.”
“At night, if there’s no retro (retroreflective tape), that might be another story,” Jensen said.
He added that crabbers on the ocean do not use retro tape, and it sometimes can be a problem with fishermen running at night with the crab traps.
“Comparatively speaking, these (here in Lake Michigan) are fairly well marked,” he said.
Some fishermen who have spoken out about the situation see running their lines in low light conditions with nets in place as a major safety concern.
“You can’t fish in the dark, even if they’re marked, and some of the best fishing is right at dawn,” says Ken Glasser, who has been fishing in Manistee for years, but cancelled his plans to fish over Memorial Day weekend because of the netting, and says he won’t come to Manistee at all this year to fish.
“I’m just not coming…and taking that kind of risk. I’ll go somewhere else. They’re in places where we fish, like in the shelf, and up to the north. Once the nets are gone, I’ll think about coming back — if there’s any fish left.”
Dan Agnello, of Jackson, feels the same way.
“I’ve been going up to Manistee for 27 years, and if those fish nets are there, I’m not going to go fishing there,” he says.
It is these types of comments that are frustrating for the commercial fishermen, and the association leaders alike.
Don Stone promises that information and education are a primary goal of the new venture. To aid in this, the commercial fishermen are planning to set up nets within the next few weeks for the public to view on dry land to see them first-hand, and invite the public to stop by and visit.
Stone has also extended an invitation to anyone wanting more information about the operation to contact him at 398-9805 or come by the office on Washington Street in the Good Thunder Motorcycles building. The fishermen can also be found where they dock their boats near the S.S. City of Milwaukee.
“We have captains, a few of them, stop in…to chitchat and see what’s going on and stay informed, and that’s real helpful,” said Don Stone.
“Because if we stop talking and everybody starts feeding on misinformation, innuendo and rumor, then that’s where the problem begins. As long as we can keep talking and keep the lines of information open, then it’s going to be better for everybody.”
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: cburgeson@pioneergroup.net

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