The waters of Lake Superior--or Gitchi (big) Gummi (water)--yielded lake trout,
whitefish and sturgeon for the Chippewa and Ojibwe Indians hundreds of years
ago. It is no wonder that several bands established villages on the shores of
the lake in what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. Tribal
fishermen harvested fish using large birchbark canoes and nets made from
twisted and knotted strands of willow bark. They also speared through the ice
and fished with hand carved decoys.
Fish were important as food for the region's native people, as well as for the first European settlers.
Commercial fishing began around 1820 and expanded about 20 percent per
year until the 1880s when some species in Lake Erie began to decline.
Catches increased again with the invention of more modern fishing equipment,
but the golden days of the commercial fishery were over by the late 1950s.
Since then, average annual catches have been around 110 million pounds
(50,000 metric tons). The value of the commercial fishery has declined mainly
because the more valuable, larger fish have given way to small and relatively
low-value species. Overfishing, pollution, shoreline and stream habitat
destruction, and accidental and deliberate introduction of non-native invasive species, such as the sea
lamprey, all played a part in the decline of the fishery.
Today, only pockets of the once large commercial fishery remain. For Canada, the Lake Erie fishery remains
prosperous, and represents nearly two-thirds of the country's total Great Lakes harvest. In the United States,
the commercial fishery is based on lake whitefish, smelt, bloater chubs and perch, and on alewife for animal
feed. Commercial fishing is limited by a federal prohibition on the sale of fish affected by toxic contaminants.
The trend in the U.S. is to reduce the pressure on the fishery by restricting commercial fishing to trap nets
that harvest species selectively, without killing species preferred by recreational anglers.
Native American fishing treaties
Through longstanding treaties, Native Americans in the region maintain their rights to fish in the waters of
the Great Lakes. Treaty rights pertaining to hunting and fishing are very similar to modern-day property
rights. Retaining certain rights when land is sold is a common practice. A property owner might decide to sell
land, but retain some property right, such as an easement or mineral rights.
The biggest Indian fishing operations are being encouraged to switch from gill nets, which kill everything
they catch, to trap nets, which let anglers throw back sport species that are alive when the nets are emptied.
Trap nets are also favored because they can work like artificial reefs for sport anglers. Gill net fishing is
completely being phased out in many areas, including south of the 45th parallel on Lake Michigan and south
of Rogers City, Mich., in Lake Huron, leaving all sport species in those areas for sport anglers.
Upper Great Lakes Tribal Fishery
— From Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (CORA)
pre-400: Native Americans fish with seine nets
400-800: Gill net invented. Inland Shores Fishery evolves.
1600-1700s: European contact: French fur trappers and Jesuits.
Fishery trade with Europeans begins. Territory wars among Europeans.
1776: U.S. Independence from Great Britain.
1778: First U.S. Indian treaty.
1807: First Michigan area treaty among Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatami.
1820: Treaty of Sault Ste. Marie ceded land at the little rapids of St. Marys River
to build Fort Brady; perpetual right to fish was reserved.
1830: Indian Removal Act legislated.
March 1836: Ottawa-Chippewa Treaty: fishing, hunting and land bases retained.
July 1836: Ottawa-Chippewa Treaty re-signed: land base lost; fishing and
July 1855: Ottawa-Chippewa obtain land for allotments and permanent homes.
Aug. 1855: Treaty with Sault Ste. Marie Bands: U.S. government to own rights to
Sault Rapids & Soo Locks area.
1860: Bay Mills Reservation established by Congress.
1924: U.S. citizenship given to Indians.
1930: People v. Chosa: State Supreme Court declares Indians have no special
fishing and hunting rights under the 1842 and 1854 treaties; state regulations
1930-55: Invasion of Sea Lamprey; trout population decimated.
Exotic species alewives and smelt gain a foothold in the lakes, competing for
1955: Great Lakes Fishery Commission established, an international agency for
Great Lakes issues.
1966: Limited entry regulation by Michigan DNR. Michigan DNR introduces of
Pacific coho salmon and chinook salmon. Order puts 250 commercial fishermen
out of business. Zone management favorsrecreation fishing.Gill net banned.
1971: People v. Jondreau: Michigan Supreme Court reversed on state law
concerning Indian fishing; rights to fish under 1854 treaty recognized.
1971-79: People v. LeBlanc: Big Abe LeBlanc sets net to challenge lack of treaty
rights; State Supreme Court rules in 1976 that Ottawa and Chippewa bands party
to the 1836 treaty retained treaty-based fishing rights in the Michigan waters of
the Great Lakes that could be limited by the state only if the state could
demonstrate that Indian fishing endangered the fishery.
1974: Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indian gains federal recognition.
1976: BIAMichigan Agency re-established.
1979: U.S. v. Michigan (Fox Decision): U. S. District Court Judge Noel Fox
decides in favor of Indian treaty Great Lakes fishing rights under the 1836 treaty .
1981: 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the Fox decision and U.S. Supreme
Court declines review. Chippewa Ottawa Treaty Fishery Resource Authority
1983: 7th Circuit Court issues decision in the Lac Courte Oreilles Band v. Voight
affirming rights to hunt and fish under 1837 and 1842 treaties.
1984: Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians gains federally
1985: Entry of Consent Order signed, setting up fish allocations and zones in
tribal treaty waters until May 2000.
1987: Trial Court establishes species for treaty harvest methods that can be used
and utilization of them by treaties of 1837 and 1842.
1994: Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa
Indians gain federal recognition.
1996: Tribal commercial fishers become subject to U.S. maritime laws and U.S.
Coast Guard inspection.
1998: U.S. Supreme Court upholds treaty rights’ continued legal existence in
Mille Lacs Band v. Minnesota, from state claim that no right to hunt, fish or gather
in an Indian treaty survives admission of the state into the Union. Commercial
fishers become subject to federal seafood safety regulations and federal
inspection (HACCP). Little River Band joins COTFMA.
May 2000: Consent Order expires. Parties negotiating for replacement allocation
Aug 2000: Tribes, state and federal governments sign 20-year Consent
Agreement under U.S. District Court Judge Richard Enslen. Fishery is allocated
between treaty and non-treaty fishers.COTFMA becomes Chippewa Ottawa