Great Lakes Seafood: Behind the Scenes of Commercial Fishery Management

This content is written by Patrick Hanchin, Senior Fisheries Biologist.

When you sit down to a dinner of planked whitefish or deep-fried cod at home or at a local restaurant, you're probably not thinking about fisheries biologists. In fact, if the average person is even pondering anything fish related, they're probably imagining some old angler that netted the fish amidst 20-foot waves and driving snow. While these images made popular by various commercial fishing reality shows are entertaining, the fishers themselves are not the only ones working to put fish on the table. The men and women that catch and process the fish are certainly the most essential players in making seafood available to us, but working behind the scenes are the fisheries technicians, biologists and managers that ensure commercial fisheries are managed appropriately so seafood can be harvested sustainably. The efforts of these experts are most notably directed towards the high-profile fisheries of the Bering Sea, North Pacific and Atlantic Coast, but they also exist right here in the Great Lakes and in Michigan.

In Michigan waters of the Great Lakes, state-licensed and Tribal commercial fishers harvest around 10 million pounds of fish annually, supporting a fishery with a dockside value of around $10 million. The total value of the fisheries after processing, marketing and retail sales is probably about five times that amount. If one considers the recreational anglers that target the same species the value then climbs even higher. In Michigan, the oversight of these valuable resources lies in the hands of state, Tribal and federal fisheries managers, with assistance provided by university experts. These fisheries managers have the complex task of ensuring the populations (also called stocks) remain healthy, so the commercial fisheries can remain viable, thus producing sustainable seafood for hungry residents of Michigan and abroad. It is no simple task.

Great Lakes commercial fishery management begins with extensive data collection by many hands. Commercial anglers submit catch reports that are subsequently validated by law enforcement officials and fisheries biologists. Fisheries technicians conduct onboard and portside sampling of commercial landings as well as creel surveys of recreational anglers. These data inform managers about the size and age of fish being harvested and also provide ideas of how many fish are being harvested for each given unit of fishing effort. In addition to data collected from the fisheries, survey crews from all involved agencies conduct surveys to provide additional information on fish abundance as well as the size, age and maturity of fish in a stock. Data collection is often a physically demanding job, occurring in the same harsh conditions as commercial fishing. The next step in the process, however, does not call for brute strength or the skills of a mariner, but rather demands a whole different crew.

The job of a stock assessment biologist is often tedious and occasionally mind-numbing, marked by frustrating hours behind the lonely glow of a computer monitor. No, the sun is definitely not on their faces and the salty spray of the sea (or freshwater in Lake Michigan) is not in their hair. Yet their job is crucial. For several weeks each year the biologists huddle over spreadsheets and lines of computer code in an attempt to bring all the data together into a comprehensive representation or "model" of the stocks. The mathematics and statistics behind the calculations are complex. In fact, graduate students trained in stock assessment are highly recruited for their skills. When the biologists are satisfied the model accurately reflects the dynamics of the fish stock and associated fishery, they will forecast future years in order to predict what the stock will look like and how many fish can be harvested by commercial fishers. Recommendations to managers for total allowable harvest are usually made in order to maintain a maximum sustainable level of biomass in a stock, though they also may advise for certain regulations such as size limits, refuges or closed seasons.

The tradeoffs for different regulations must be considered carefully. For example, total allowable harvest may be maximized with no limit on the size of fish that can be harvested, but harvesting fish before they are sexually mature will reduce the overall spawning potential of the stock. The biologists may recommend a combination of harvest limits and regulations, leaving the decisions ultimately up to the final participants of this process. The final negotiations and decisions, including the allocation of the total allowable harvest to the different user groups, are usually reserved for upper level managers in natural resource agencies. Thus the entire process of commercial fishery management entails a diverse cast of characters, each trained to do a specific job efficiently and effectively. Through their collective efforts, we are ensured of sustainable seafood from our Great Lakes.

Just some food for thought as you perhaps enjoy your next meal of Michigan fish.