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Michigan's dwindling commercial fishing industry says it's fighting DNR for survival

Big Stone.JPG

Michigan's dwindling commercial fishing industry says it's fighting DNR for survival

John L. Russell

Special to The Detroit News  5FEB2021

Mackinaw City — Ice had to be broken one late January day from the Hammond Bay State Harbor as the Alexander family headed out onto Lake Huron in their 50-foot tug R.C. Anderson, some 35 miles south of Mackinaw City.


Lavern Alexander and his son, Aaron, traveled 11 miles into the lake to pull gill nets from 150 feet of water. This particular trip netted 900 pounds of whitefish and lake trout. “It wasn’t difficult getting out, but we had to break ice,” Aaron Alexander said. “We started early. It’s a cold day.” 

Upon their return to the frozen shore with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, the men made quick work of unloading the fish. A refrigerated truck from Big Stone Bay Fishery carried their catch to the Mackinaw City business so the fresh catch could be prepared for wholesale and retail customers.

Members of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, tribal fishers like the Alexanders are the last of the commercial fishery on the Great Lakes to be fishing during the long winter months.


Their success and that of this year’s season — specifically how much fish will make it to restaurants and fish markets — remain in doubt. 


Commercial fisheries that belong to the Michigan Fish Producers Association have sued the Michigan Department of Natural Resources over rule changes implemented by the state last month without lawmakers passing supporting laws. They say the changes will increase their costs and cripple their ability to catch fish.


Among the more controversial changes: Commercial fishers, who for years have been allowed to place their trap nets as deep as 150 feet, are now limited to depths of no more than 80 feet. 


Joel Petersen, who fishes commercially out of Leland and Muskegon, said he historically fishes around the Manitou Islands at 120 feet. “If we have to raise our nets to 80 feet, we cannot catch enough fish to survive,” he said.


The controversy has thrown a commercial fishing industry already hit hard by invasive quagga and zebra mussels into further turmoil. Commercial fishers are wondering why.

“People take it for granted that commercial fishing will always be there,” said Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society in Leland and a member of the Michigan Fish Producers Association.


The riverside fishing village surrounding the mouth of the Carp River is lined with fish shanties, boutiques and small shops and is a major tourist attraction in Leelanau County.


Carlson's Fishery in Fishtown is a retail outlet for smoked and fresh whitefish. It is a busy store during the summer and has one tug to fish for whitefish near the Manitou Islands that are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. When they can't capture enough whitefish with trap nets, the store sometimes has to buy from Big Stone Bay Fishery more than 100 miles north.


“Why is this industry under scrutiny?” Holmes said. “We're a small horse-and-buggy industry. Our quotas are so small no one can make a living fishing commercially.”

For decades, commercial fishing was a thriving family business on the Great Lakes, but last year, just 13 commercial fishing businesses operated in the season that ended in October, according to Amber Mae Petersen, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Fish Producers Association.


Five tribes also fish commercially using gill nets with their own quotas and rules established under federal treaties and augment the supply of fish sold to wholesale sellers and to restaurants and markets.

DNR wants law changed

Assistant Attorney General Kelly Drake wrote in the state’s response to the lawsuit that "the state commercial fishing statute is woefully outdated, having been last updated in 1968, and is in need of amendment for many reasons. (The) DNR has been working diligently for years to get legislation passed to update the statute.”


That effort gained steam when three bills passed the state House in February 2020 that rewrote the rules. In addition to decreasing the depths that trap nets can be set at, the bills also shortened the commercial fishing season, required the filing of GPS coordinates for nets, mandated daily harvest reports and raised fines and license costs. 


The House bills were supported by the DNR but opposed by the Michigan Fish Producers Association.


State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, offered amendments to a Senate bill that would have restored the 150-foot fishing depth and nixed many other rules supported by the DNR, but the bill died at the end of the legislative session in December.


DNR Fisheries Chief James Dexter said the agency lacked the time to assess the amendments in the Senate bill.

“The bills that were in play were in an 80-page package,” Dexter said. "To figure out the nuances as to what and how the changes would affect other state statutes was impossible to ascertain before the end of the year when licenses expired.” 


He and DNR Director Daniel Eichinger are defendants in the lawsuit.


Last season, the commercial fisheries operated under DNR fisheries order 243.19, which spelled out fishing depth among other rules. In November, Eichinger signed a new one-page order, 243.21, that removed much of the language about rules, including fishing depth.


The terms of that order took effect Jan. 8, Dexter told The News. They include the restrictions in the state House bills at the discretion of the Fisheries Division, despite the fact the restrictions were not passed into law.


The lawsuit was filed on Jan. 4 and also sought a judge’s order to force the DNR to offer 2021 license renewals, which the agency had not yet done. However, Dexter confirmed renewal applications were mailed last month.


“We have, in early January, mailed out applications to all commercial fisheries to allow fishing through 2021,” he said. He declined further comment, citing the lawsuit.

The Michigan Fish Producers Association is asking Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray to issue a preliminary injunction to be allowed to operate under rules in place last year.


“This is a very unique case,” said Lansing attorney Michael Perry, who is representing the association. “We basically want to essentially allow commercial fishing operations to continue in 2021-22 as they did under the rules in 2020 until the courts can iron out the differences. Here we have a regulated industry being based on political decisions; nothing is being addressed about the science of the fishery; it’s all strictly tied to the legislation."


Whitefish devastation

The DNR says there are about 50 commercial fishing licenses across the four Great Lakes it regulates, but only a portion of the licensees actively harvest fish. Those who do have quotas set by the DNR that they cannot exceed in a season, although the mussels have so reduced the whitefish population in the Great Lakes that some commercial fishers say quotas are largely irrelevant.


Big Stone Bay Fishery's quota was 400,000 pounds of whitefish last year. The company harvested just 90,000 pounds. It buys from tribal fishers to have enough to serve its customers.


Quagga and zebra mussels, which were introduced in the Great Lakes in the 1980s from ocean vessels discharging ballast, have decimated fish populations and impacted the size of fish by consuming much of the microscopic food that lake trout and whitefish feed upon.


DNR fisheries biologist Dave Caroffino says "90%" of the reason for the decline in whitefish populations is due to the mussels.


“They’ve changed the ecosystem in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan,” said Caroffino, who is assigned to the Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station. “This past year has been challenging.”


The DNR annually stocks whitefish and salmon, while the federal government stocks lake trout.


The Michigan Fish Producers Association is also lobbying for more flexibility regarding lake trout. Commercial fishers now have to throw back any lake trout caught in their nets.


“Part of a settlement should include keeping lake trout caught in nets,” said Scott Everett, legislative director for the association, in a statement. “We’d like to establish quotas based on scientific estimates of fish populations through data gathering.”

‘Livelihood depends on it’

Skip Telgard’s restaurant, like many across the state, depends on a steady supply of fresh whitefish.


“We average deliveries of about 400 pounds of whitefish twice a week from Big Stone Bay Fishery in the summer,” said Telgard, who owns the Bluebird Restaurant and Tavern in Leland. “Our whitefish sales are just insane — it’s our No. 1 bestseller. We hope the resource stays stable and available. Our livelihood depends on it.”


Commercial, recreational and tribal fishing in the Great Lakes is a $7 billion industry annually in the U.S. and Canada and supports more than 75,000 jobs, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.


The association's Petersen says Michigan officials are not acting fast enough.

“Where we are failing is the state is not adapting to this issue. …We need some rethinking of how we manage our Great Lakes fishery," said Petersen, who owns the Fish Monger’s Wife fish market in Muskegon.


“You look at a map, and the areas that are open to commercial fishing is small,” Petersen said. “We don’t have enough commercial fishermen to overfish any area. It’s the environment of the lakes, not commercial or sports fishing, that is doing the damage. Quagga and zebra mussels have severely impacted the food sources.


“This issue is so big and this ripple effect is growing.”


As commercial fishers await a decision from Lansing there is hope that compromises can be made.


Cam McMurry of Big Stone Bay Fishery in Mackinaw City echoed what commercial fishing families are hoping for.

“We don’t want to fight with these guys (DNR),” McMurry said. “We just want to fish.”


John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.

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