State Department to look into Great Lakes fishing harvests

Fishermen wade into the Maumee River to try their luck during the annual walleye run.
Fishermen wade into the Maumee River to try their luck during the annual walleye run.

On Wednesday, State Department Secretary Condoleezza Rice was described by one of Australia's biggest newspapers as the world's most powerful woman. Now, in addition to her duties in Iraq and other hot spots around the globe, she is being asked to cast an eye toward the Great Lakes to help settle a potentially divisive issue: fishing rights.

Stetson Tinkham, deputy director of the State Department's office of marine conservation, acknowledged in an interview with The Blade on Thursday that Ms. Rice's agency has quietly started to take a look at how fish harvests, stocking, size limits, and other key management issues have been decided since the mid-1960s.

The last time it did so was 1997, when it dismissed a claim by Ohio commercial fishermen who alleged the Lake Erie Committee - one of five that operate independently under the auspices of the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission - was acting beyond its constitutional scope.

The commission, which operates this year on a $20.6 million budget, was founded by the U.S. and Canada in 1955 ostensibly to combat the dreaded sea lamprey's assault on lake trout and other fish. It also was created to be a vehicle for networking information about exotics and general fishing issues.

But in 1965, the commission's five lake committees were formed. Questions have arisen over the amount of power they have assumed.

Mr. Tinkham confirmed the State Department is revisiting the issue because of a single-spaced, five-page letter to Ms. Rice that was submitted Aug. 18 by Wolf-Dieter Busch, who alleges the lake committees limit public input.

"We do take the letter seriously," Mr. Tinkham said.

The committees have no explicit power. But they are comprised largely of state and provincial officials who strive to reach a consensus on various issues. Then, they convince their agencies to adopt what comes out of committee meetings as policy, Mr. Busch said.

"He's 100 percent right. The Lake Erie Committee has gotten out of control," said Frank Reynolds, a commercial fisherman from Oregon who was part of the 1997 challenge and describes the lake committees as "the absolute power."

Their annual meetings are scheduled for March 20-24 in Windsor, Ont.

Mr. Busch is a Maryland consultant and longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist with years of fisheries management experience along the Gulf coast, the Great Lakes, and the Atlantic seaboard. During one 11-year stretch, he was chief of the U.S. Department of Interior's fisheries restoration and management program for the lower Great Lakes.

In that position, he presided over a national fish hatchery. After leaving the region in 1999, he went into fisheries management for the Interior Department's Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in Washington.

Copies of the letter that he sent to Ms. Rice were forwarded to at least 10 members of Congress, the two committees in charge of appropriations, the two committees in charge of foreign relations, and a number of other federal officials.

A certain amount of the fishery commission's budget "must be considered illegal and stopped" because of unspoken power that was gradually inherited, he wrote.

President Bush has recommended $2.3 million less for the fishery commission in his budget proposal to Congress for the 2007 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. But the White House gave no indication that the proposed cutback in U.S. funds, from $14.4 million down to $12.1 million, has anything to do with the allegations raised. Canada contributes about $6.2 million a year to the fishery commission's budget, said Marc Gaden, fishery commission spokesman and legislative liaison.

Mr. Busch made similar allegations in a 2003 peer-reviewed article for a scholarly journal published by University of Toledo's Legal Institute of the Great Lakes. He wrote a paper on the topic in 1998.

In an interview with The Blade, Mr. Busch said the issue is far more than an academic exercise.

He said it's about money, power, and politics - decisions that can impact the science behind various fish populations, whether it's tinkering with the ratio of predators to prey, relying too heavily on hatchery-produced fish, or being content with the status quo instead of trying to achieve maximum results.

At stake are billions of dollars in hotel and motel revenue, boating registration fees, fishing licenses, bait and tackle purchases, gas receipts, and recreational tourism in general.

Mr. Busch said the structure of the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf coast commissions differs from that of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission - one of his few points that Mr. Gaden doesn't dispute.

But Mr. Gaden said the history of the lakes region has been unique in many ways. The lakes are shared by eight states, two provinces, two nations, and Native American tribes. Unlike the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, no significant part of the lakes are deemed as federal waters. State and provincial waters go up to the international water border, he said.

The Great Lakes region has resisted federal control of the lakes. That was evidenced just this past Dec. 13 in Milwaukee. Governors and premiers finalized their accord on a pair of documents, called Annex 2001, that aim to update a 1985 charter and provide more legal ammunition against any further attempts to divert or export Great Lakes water from the region.

Mr. Gaden said he fears that federalization of the Great Lakes could be what motivates Mr. Busch's campaign. Mr. Busch said all he is trying to do is to open up the decision-making process so that it is done right and is unrestricted.

"Everybody's trying to get healthy ecosystems, but we can't get the right people in the room because the fishery commission limits who can talk," Mr. Busch said.

Gary Isbell, executive administrator for fisheries management and research for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said he has never felt hindered by the Lake Erie Committee's decisions. "We feel very comfortable when the committee comes to a consensus," he said.

The committee's chairman is one of his employees, Roger Knight, the Ohio DNR's Lake Erie program manager in Sandusky. He was not available for comment. But Mr. Isbell said the consensus-building approach at the committee level does not limit public participation.

"I don't think in practicality we're doing anything that's outside of the law. None of the regulations is made at the lake committee level," he said. "I really think it's a model that works."

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.