Settlement wording rekindles battle between tribal, sport fishers
March 9, 2002
By John Flesher / Associated Press
MUNISING -- Jacques LeBlanc vividly remembers those scary nights in
the early 1980s, when gunfire sometimes rang out as he placed fishing
nets in the upper Great Lakes.
American Indian commercial fishermen such as LeBlanc were locked in
a bitter dispute with sport anglers, who claimed tribal nets were snagging
more than their fair share of the catch.
"We'd work at night to try and avoid attention," said LeBlanc, a member
of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"You'd be out in your boat and hear the shots. Or people would run at
you and veer off at the last minute."
Tempers calmed when a federal judge approved a settlement in 1985. Now
they're flaring again in Munising, a Lake Superior shoreline town of 2,500,
and LeBlanc is a target once more.
It started in fall 2000, shortly after Bay Mills and four other tribes
signed a 20-year revision of the pact with the state.
No one seems to know how, but provisions wound up in the 75-page document
that opened Munising Bay to Indian commercial fishing -- which had been
prohibited there for more than seven decades.
The bay extends about five miles north from its namesake town before
reaching Superior's open waters. Sport anglers flock there in pursuit
of steelhead trout, coho salmon and whitefish.
Jim Ekdahl, a Department of Natural Resources field deputy who represented
Michigan in the negotiations, insists the new policy slipped into the
compact by mistake as attorneys sent drafts back and forth.
"I've been scratching my head, as we all have been," he said.
Tribal representatives say opening Munising Bay was among concessions
they sought and a key reason for accepting the deal. The bay usually freezes
in winter, permitting ice fishing -- a safer alternative to the open lakes,
with their floating ice slabs and other hazards, LeBlanc says.
"It's no glitch," he said at home on the Bay Mills reservation, about
100 miles east of the bay. "You can't tell me all those people overlooked
Many anglers agree, claiming the state sold them out to get a deal and
now feigns ignorance. Either way, they want it changed, saying Indian
will overfish the bay. Tribal biologists deny that.
"What kind of a country do we live in where the government admits they
messed up but says, �Oh, well, ho hum, there's nothing we can do?"'
says Doug Miron, chairman of the Munising Bay Fish Committee, which
is exploring a legal challenge.
Ekdahl has approached the tribes about amending the pact, but says they've
shown little interest. For now, matters are stalled -- and sport anglers
are growing more frustrated.
"The DNR's got to do something ... or the fishery as we know it will
be depleted," Miron said.
Dave Menominee, another Bay Mills fisherman, says his crew was first
to take advantage of the bay's new status, spending a week there in late
2000. Local anglers "gave us a little hassle" but no big problems, he
But in January 2001, LeBlanc and several helpers hauled gill nets onto
the frozen bay. They cut holes and placed about 4,700 feet of netting
below the ice.
That night, vandals severed 14 surface lines attached to the nets --
which could have allowed them to drift indefinitely, snagging and suffocating
fish. The Indians managed to retrieve the netting but the culprits were
LeBlanc says there was "talk around town ... they were going to burn
my truck, my snowmobiles, they were going to shoot at me from the hills"
overlooking the bay. Still, he continued fishing for several weeks with
a police escort.
Anglers say the threats went both ways. "They said if we kept cutting
their nets they'd bring the whole tribe up here and put their nets all
around our fishing shanties," said Troy Passinault of Munising.
At a tense public forum, LeBlanc assured skeptical anglers he wasn't
trying to ruin their prized fishing spot. But he refused to stay out of
the bay while officials tried to sort things out.
"I asked them if they'd be willing to quit their jobs until this was
settled and they say they couldn't do that," LeBlanc said. "Well, this
is my job."
He hasn't returned to Munising this winter, because unusually mild temperatures
have prevented ice from forming. Crews from other tribes apparently have
steered clear as well. Their absence has prevented more flare-ups, but
the peace may be temporary.
LeBlanc and Menominee say they'll be back -- weather permitting, and
if they decide it's economically worthwhile. Miron says his group is equally
determined to stop them, although it condemns vandalism or violence and
considers the state more of a foe than the Indians.
Miron contends federal regulations allow revision of the agreement to
restore Munising Bay's previous status, if the state would try. Ekdahl
says the only way to make the change is to reopen negotiations with the
tribes -- and he acknowledges having few bargaining chips.
The bay isn't a prime commercial fishing area, he says; it has a limited
population of whitefish, which tribal operators prefer. And he doubts
tribal fishing will deplete the bay's other species that are more popular
Bill Belen, a local sportsman, doesn't buy it.
"You let them start gill netting in here and there won't be anything
left for us," the 40-year-old said, pulling his boat ashore on a gray,
The gill net, which resembles an oversized tennis net, is a sore point
for sport fishermen. They liken it to a vacuum cleaner that sucks up everything
within reach, indiscriminately killing fish -- including those tribal
fishers don't want.
Defenders say the complaint is outdated. By choosing locations, water
depths and mesh sizes, today's gill netters can target specific fish types.
Modern netting is made of monofilament, easier for sport fish such as
salmon and walleye to break than yesteryear's nylon was, LeBlanc says.
But the quarrel involves more than fishing methods. It's also a cultural
clash, part of a long-running debate over tribal sovereignty and whether
19th Century treaties are relevant in the modern world.
LeBlanc's father, the late Albert "Big Abe" LeBlanc, is a legendary
figure around Bay Mills. His challenge of the state's authority to restrict
tribal fishing prompted court rulings that upheld Indian treaty rights
and led to the 1985 settlement.
"I often think of my dad when I'm on the lake; I guess it's where I
connect with him," says Jacques LeBlanc, 38. "I'm not trying to pick a
fight with anybody. But when I'm out there using gill nets, I'm exercising
the rights he fought for."
There might be easier ways to make a living, he acknowledges. "But I'm
a fisherman, it's all I want to be. I'd love to pass it on to my boys."
Anglers are equally passionate. Passinault, 26, is a lifelong sport
fisherman and has lots of time for it since getting laid off from his
"This is all I do," he said after a recent outing on Munising Bay. "If
they take that away from me, what's left? I know they have rights, but
when they come off the reservation they ought to abide by our rules."
On the Net: Copy of 2000 fishing compact: http://www.1836cora.org
Q&A about Indian commercial fishing on Munising Bay Questions and
answers about Indian commercial fishing and the Munising Bay controversy:
Q. Which tribes are parties to the 2000 compact with the state?
A. The Bay Mills Indian Community, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa
and Chippewa Indians, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Little
Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of
Q. How does the 2000 compact open the bay to tribal fishing?
A. The document divides the Great Lakes waters that it covers into a
network of grids and assigns each a number. The grid corresponding with
Munising Bay was among those making up the "Lake Superior Inter-Tribal
Fishing Zone." A map accompanying the document also shows the bay as open
to tribal fishing.
Q. What are gill nets, and why are they so unpopular with anglers?
A. Indians have used the gill net for centuries. Resembling an oversized
tennis net, it's held on the lake bottom or at specified depths by lead
weights and floating buoys. Fish swim into the mesh and are snagged. If
caught by the gills, they suffocate.
Critics say the net takes too many fish and wastes those the tribal
fishermen don't want. The tribes say modern techniques and gear enable
them to screen out unwanted fish.
Q. Is there an alternative to the gill net?
A. Some tribal operators use the trap net, a sort of tunnel that steers
fish into a holding area. It keeps most fish alive until hauled to the
surface, so unwanted species can be thrown back.
But it's too expensive for many fishermen, requiring more equipment
and larger boats than the gill net.