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Michigan DNR settles for $75,000 in lawsuit with Fish Producers Association

Fish producers.jpg
Courtesy of Michigan Fish Producers Association

WCMU has learned that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will pay $75,000 in a settlement with the Michigan Fish Producers Association. It was the result of a class-action lawsuit after fishermen accused the DNR of depriving them of their livelihoods.

The problems started right before the pandemic. The Michigan House passed three bills amending the DNR’s regulatory authority in commercial fishing.

But when the bills came to the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources, the Fish Producers Association testified against them and they never advanced.

What you need to know is when commercial fishing laws aren’t updated, the DNR has the authority to implement and amend regulations through fishery orders as essentially band-aid measures. And in late 2020, the DNR made an amendment to Fishery Order 243.

“The industry could have been stopped pretty much with this order. And then you would not be able to get white fish from a commercial fisherman,” said Amanda Holmes, executive director of Fishtown Preservation Society in Leeland.

Fishery Order 243.21 went into effect on January 8, 2021. It barred commercial fishermen from casting their nets no more than 80 feet into the water. Previous rules had allowed nearly double that. The order also shortened the fishing season to end October 1st. “And long as I can remember, it ends November 1st,” said Cameron McMurry, Vice President of the Michigan Fish Producers Association and owner of Big Stone Bay Fishery in Mackinac City.

McMurry said the amended fishery order was a means of retaliation for the Fish Producers testifying against the DNR’s bills.

“And you catch a lot of fish in October, because they move in shallower. And over the years with climate change invasive species fish hang out a lot deeper than 80 feet these days, they're not in there anymore,” said McMurry.

The DNR did not respond to WCMU’s request for comment about Fishery Order 243.21.

In a December 2020 email to commercial fishermen, the DNR’s Head of Fisheries, Jim Dexter, wrote:

“Unless the commercial fishing legislation is passed this year, the Department will not be able to enact provisions that were previously within the commercial fishing order that benefited your fishing operations.”

Soon after the order was given, a group of Republican lawmakers wrote a joint letter to the DNR condemning the order. They said they were concerned about a government agency using the fishery order to try and achieve legislative goals.

“So that's what the lawsuit was all about,” said McMurry. “You know, you can't just punish us. That's not right.”

Within a month of amending Fishery Order 243, the DNR cancelled several of its provisions.

But the Fish Producers Association still filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the Michigan DNR was in violation of their First Amendment rights to fish.

In the end, the Michigan DNR reached a settlement with the Fish Producers Association. It will pay the group $75,000. According to the settlement agreement, the DNR doesn’t admit any wrongdoing.

Michael Perry is the attorney representing the Fish Producers Association.

“As a result of mediation, and the association's Board of Directors members who participated in that were pleased with the result of the mediation,” said Perry.

While the case was still in mediation, this March Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a law that allows net depths to 150 feet and for the commercial season to end on November 1st.

“The fact that this was passed, is just so heartening, and it shows that at the state level, that this seems to be understood in a much better way than it has been in the past,” said Holmes.

Although the lawsuit between the DNR and the fish producers is settled, the DNR and commercial fishermen will likely continue to disagree on how best to manage the Great Lakes.

“They hate fishermen,” said McMurry. “It doesn't matter what science says. It doesn't matter. They don't operate and manage the lake in a scientific fashion. They manage the lake for sportsmen.”

Randy Claramunt, the Lake Huron basin coordinator for the Michigan DNR Fisheries Division. He said the DNR does incorporate science-based approaches to management, but it considers other factors as well.

“Fisheries management incorporates social values, interests, goals and objectives as well. And you have to do that,” said Claramunt. There's a lot of gray. And the gray often means we have to pull in what people want to see from the fishery.”

Claramunt said the DNR doesn’t favor sportsmen over commercial fisherman and isn’t trying to eliminate any commercial operations.

In 1969, Michigan had 339 active commercial fishing licenses. Today, only 51 licenses remain between 13 commercial fishing operations in both peninsulas.

Right now, all of the state’s major fishing groups are in the middle of negotiating a new Great Lakes Consent Decree. It allocates who can fish where, what they can catch and how much someone can take from the water. It’s unclear when a new decree will be finalized, but one thing is certain, the decades old tension between the DNR and commercial fishermen will likely remain.

Editor’s note: In the interest of transparency, we note that the Michigan DNR is a financial supporter of WCMU. 

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.