Great Lakes Fishery Commission

The GLFC was formed by the Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries between Canada and the United States, which was ratified in 1955. The convention outlines two major roles for the GLFC: to coordinate fisheries research and control invasive sea lamprey. The GLFC also has a third function, “to establish and maintain working arrangements” among the state, provincial, tribal, and federal management agencies.26 Approximately 20 staff provide secretariat support to the GLFC at their offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


GLFC was the outcome of diffuse fishery authority among and clashes between the United States and Canada as well as among states and provinces on how to address exacerbating fishery problems in the first half of the twentieth century. Earlier negotiations to establish a more formal and strict transboundary governance regime had failed. Prior to the establishment of the GLFC, “more than twenty-seven proposals to create a formal, overarching agreement or mechanism to facilitate transboundary [fisheries] governance” were considered.27 What differentiated the convention from earlier attempts to establish a CGR— and ultimately help ensure its success—was the explicit awareness of the interdependency among key actors, notably at subnational level, and the need to create mechanisms for their cooperative engagement. States and provinces, not federal governments, have primacy in Great Lakes fishery governance. Awareness that “fishery diplomacy” would have to be soft, rather than mandatory, manifested in a flexible directive for the GLFC to establish formal or informal “working arrangements” among state and provincial fishery agencies.28 The convention formalized the consequential incentives and initiated and cemented leadership for binational fisheries management via the establishment of the GLFC, which is comprised of eight commissioners.


GLFC operations and decision-making procedures are formally outlined in the GLFC’s inaugural annual report of 1956.29 Over time, however, the Joint Strategic Plan for Management of Great Lakes Fisheries (Joint Strategic Plan) has become the primary vehicle driving execution of the mandates and reflects the context of the GLFC as a nonregulatory binational entity that relies on collaborative and diplomatic tools and processes rather than strict legal and enforceable ones. Importantly, the Joint Strategic Plan transformed previously-existing lake committees established by GLFC in 1964 into “active progressive forums for collaboration.”30 The plan heightened the “working arrangements” called for in the convention through a formal substructure, which has been considered its own transboundary governance regime.31 Through a CGR lens, this works. The Joint Strategic Plan creates principled engagement through iterative, yet formalized interactions that reinforce expectations that members on the various committees created under the plan will work together to collect and share information. Participation on committees overseeing fishery management in each individual Great Lake is limited to representatives from the states, provinces, and tribes which have explicit fisheries management authority. Other GLFC committees bring in federal agencies, academics, and outside experts, which could include environmental or other nonprofit organizations, but generally has not been the case. GLFC also has a

Water diplomacy 61 committee of citizen advisors and various research boards; however, the civil society role is limited.

Principled engagement within GLFC has also been adaptive. While the convention rules stipulate that the GLFC can vote and how votes shall occur, implementation of the Joint Strategic Plan is done through consensus. A senior staff with the GLFC acknowledged:

Rule 8 [in the convention] is interesting, as the rules do allow for ‘voting’ to occur, but note it’s one vote per section, which really means there needs to be consensus, as there are an even number of sections. 1 have been at the GLFC for 24 years and 1 have seen only one vote during my time.32

The Joint Strategic Plan specifies “[c]onsensus must be achieved when management will significantly influence the interests of more than one jurisdiction.”33

The Joint Strategic Plan further directs members to decide on tasks that need to be done, who is to perform them, and calls upon the members to develop broad policies and specific implementation plans.34 The substructure and rules of engagement established by the Joint Strategic Plan convey the shared motivation embedded in the convention and translate that into capacity for joint action through a Strategic Vision, developed by commissioners with staff input, which outlines GLFC broad priorities and is the launching pad for specific activities and outputs.

Specific activities are decided upon during twice-yearly meetings, but often emerge from individual committee work with staff input.35 Formal adoption of work findings and other work products is made by GLFC commissioners, with staff input and formally recorded as part of GLFC meeting minutes.36 In contrast to GLC, these decisions and actions are more typically documented as inward-facing directives to staff as opposed to outward facing “policy resolutions” to the US Congress or other parties.

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