Tribal stewards: Fish for the future

The Bay Mills Indian Community is a federally recognized tribe of Ojibwa or Chippewa peoples who have lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for thousands of years.

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Frank Zomer, Lead Inland Fisheries Biologist for the Bay Mills Indian Community, surgically implants a radio-telemetry tag into a northern pike. Photo credit: Frank Zomer.

As of 2022, Michigan has 12 federally recognized Native American tribes. These tribes vary in their sizes, histories, and cultures, but a common element surrounds all indigenous people in North America: a connection to the natural world. Despite centuries of colonization and forced assimilation, many tribes still work hard today to ensure this natural world is stewarded and managed properly for the benefit of all.

Today, all of the tribes of Michigan have their own departments or employees devoted to conservation and natural resource management. Each tribe has a different organizational structure that may include conservation, fisheries, or wildlife departments, depending on the needs of their communities. Such tribal departments are engaged in a variety of projects, often exercised through their treaty rights, aimed at stewarding, protecting, and restoring the natural resources of Michigan. Below is one such project that showcases the breadth and impact of tribal nations in Michigan on the beloved natural resources all Michiganders enjoy.

Bay Mills Indian Community

The Bay Mills Indian Community is a federally recognized tribe of Ojibwa or Chippewa peoples who have lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for thousands of years. The community lies nestled between Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Canada along the Waishkey Bay and the St. Marys River. These features are part of the community's name sake and provide outstanding fishing and recreational opportunities. While many organizations are involved in environmental monitoring in the region, the Bay Mills Indian Community is especially invested in managing this important fishery, with their Biological Services Department at the helm. 

Frank Zomer has been working hard to ensure his team is stewarding a successful future for the Waishkey Bay fishery as the Lead Inland Fisheries Biologist for the Bay Mills Indian Community. While the department works on a variety of tasks, Zomer prioritizes “research based directly on the needs of the community” and acknowledges that successful management only works through interagency collaboration. Despite their size, the Bay Mills Biological Services Department is making lasting changes to the Waishkey Bay and St. Marys River fisheries that will have impacts for the entire eastern Upper Peninsula community for years to come. 

Fisheries management

One such impact surrounds their ongoing project of tracking culturally significant and recreationally valuable fish species to better inform tribal and state management strategies. For example, the Bay Mills Biological Services Department has stocked more than 1.6 million walleye (Sander vitreus) in the Waishkey Bay since 2000, most raised at the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Hatchery. For the past few years, Zomer and his team have surgically implanted acoustic tags into the fishs’ ‘belly’ cavity, also known as the coelomic cavity. These tags send out acoustic signals which are picked up by receivers located throughout the Waishkey Bay, St. Marys River, and even into Lake Superior. As fish swim near these receivers, the receivers detect the signal and relay the fish’s presence to Zomer. 

From this project, the Bay Mills Biological Services Department has been able to better understand where their stocked walleye travel and other insights such as survival and reproduction. This data is used to determine the best management strategies to continue to ensure a healthy population of walleye in and around Waishkey Bay which can be enjoyed by all members of the community. Tribes have managed fisheries for these same goals for millennia, now they just have a new arsenal of tools at their disposal. 

Zomer has also started up a project working with northern pike (Esox lucius), a culturally significant species to the tribe given the Bay Mills Indian Community’s original name, Gnoozhekaaning, which translates to “Place of the Pike." Recent shifts in bay water level, likely due to climate change, has altered their ideal spawning habitats to reproduce. Pike prefer to spawn in shallow, vegetated edges of the bay, but rising water levels has made these locations too deep. Zomer and his team are investigating how these water level changes will impact the overall population of pike and if pike will begin to use new spawning grounds created by the flooding. They also implant acoustic tags into northern pike to study their movements through these spawning areas. 

Zomer wants folks to know that this tribal fishery research “extends beyond the tribe itself” and will have “lasting implications for anglers and community members in the Upper Peninsula.” It is important to the department to engage in management that will ensure a future where the Waishkey Bay fishery is healthy and able to provide for the communities’ needs.

Learn more

Michigan State University Extension highlights that projects just like this one are occurring all over Michigan every day. Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes remain active stewards of our natural resources and are working diligently to ensure these resources for the coming generations. If you want to learn about another tribal project, check out the article, “From Wasteland to Wetland,” or consider using this map to find the tribe nearest you that may be working on managing the natural resources in your county or township. 

Avery Tilley graduated with dual degrees in Fisheries and Wildlife, and Genomics and Molecular Genetics from Michigan State University in 2023. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a Texan. Tilley is pursuing a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia with hopes to further a career in tribal wildlife medicine.

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