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The Story of State-licensed Commercial Fishing History on the Great Lakes

This content is written by Tom Goniea, Senior Fisheries Biologist.

Early History

The Rise of Recreation and Modern Commercial Fishery

The Current Commercial Fishery

Maps of Recent Commercial Fishing Locations

References

Early History
A state-licensed commercial fishery has been a part of the Great Lakes fisheries management strategy since the first non-resident licenses were issued in 1865. Those early license requirements and fishing regulations were in place mainly to ensure that fees, taxes, and revenues generated from commercial fishing remained in the state coffers but were not established with the intention of protecting the resource (Brege and Kevern 1978). However, by 1929, the number of individuals generating income from commercial fishing numbered in the tens of thousands. This level of commercial use combined with advancements in technology including nylon gillnets and stream/gasoline engines necessitated more regulation. The first real commercial fishing law of substance in Michigan was enacted in 1929. The law required all persons commercially fishing Michigan's waters of the Great Lakes to be licensed and established minimum size limits for fish, season closures, and legal types of commercial fishing gear. The law also designated areas in the great lakes that were open and closed to commercial fishing. While the new law required all participants in the commercial fishery to be licensed, there were no restrictions on the number of participants and thousands of licenses were issued annually. The early commercial fishery targeted all fish species of value and commonly harvested lake trout, walleye, yellow perch, lake herring, lake sturgeon, bloater chubs, and lake whitefish.

Boat full of Lake Herring harvested in 1918 from Lake Erie
Commercial Lake Herring Harvest in 1918, Lake Erie.

The fishery's emphasis in the Great Lakes began to evolve in the middle of the 20th century. Prior to the 1960s, the lakes were managed for the highest possible commercial production of any and all fish species of value, but decades of over fishing combined with the devastating effects of introduced species caused a biological and economic collapse of the state's native fish (Michigan DNR 1974; Dempsey 2001; Tody 2003). From 1960 to 1969, participation in the fishery dropped over 60% and while the remaining commercial fishing licenses continued to harvest roughly 22,000,000 total pounds of fish annually, the harvest was comprised of very different species than previous decades. Non-native species that had either been intentionally or accidently introduced to the Great Lakes comprised an increasing part of the commercial fishery until by the middle of the decade, smelt, alewife and common carp had become the top three species harvested. A change was on the horizon.

Boats in port in Leland's Fishtown
Commercial gillnet tugs at Leland's Fishtown in the 1930s.

The Rise of Recreation and Modern Commercial Fishery
The collapse of traditional commercial stocks of native fish, including lake trout, herring, sturgeon, and lake whitefish, coupled with an exploding invasive alewife population prompted Fisheries Division to revise Michigan's management strategy for the Great Lakes. In the late 1960s, Pacific coho and Chinook salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes in a desperate effort to control alewife populations. This strategy was an immediate success. Overnight adult salmon returning to coastal rivers and staging in the near shore areas of the Great Lakes created intense public demand for recreational opportunities. New interest from the general public in the Great Lakes led to user conflict over resource allocation and fishing grounds between commercial and recreational fishers. Fisheries Division responded with a new emphasis on managing Great Lakes fisheries for recreational purposes with a diminished role for commercial enterprise (Tody 2003). In the late 1960's, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) enacted administrative rules creating development zones for recreational fishing throughout the Great Lakes where commercial fishing would be prohibited. However, as the newly established salmon fishery increased in popularity it became apparent that setting aside token areas of the Great Lakes for recreational development was not going to be enough. More would need to be done.

Several boats fishing on Platte Bay.
Boat fishing on Platte Bay
Recreational salmon fishing at the mouth of Platte Bay 1967, Lake Michigan.

In 1968, the Department requested and was granted statutory authority to institute a "limited entry" policy on the commercial fishery. Limited entry would effectively cap the maximum number of commercial fishing licenses available to only those licenses issued during the preceding year. Licenses were evaluated and those that had "full-time" fishing operations over the previous three years were grandfathered in and guaranteed annual renewal of their license from that point forward as long as they continued to meet the conditions of the law. The limited entry policy effectively prevented new commercial entries into the fishery unless the interested party could find a current commercial licensee willing to sell their license in the fishery. Limited entry had an immediate effect on effort and harvest when it was implemented in 1970. The number of commercial fishing licenses issued decreased from 339 in 1969 to 176 in 1970. The combined harvest was reduced to 16,400,000 pounds with alewife, channel catfish, carp, and lake whitefish constituting the bulk of the total.

During the 1970's, the major changes in commercial fish policy that began during the 1960's continued as the Department emphasized expansion of recreational fishing opportunity on the Great Lakes. The most important developments during this period involved significant changes in authorized commercial fishing gear. While several commercial gear types were being deployed, the industry relied heavily on small- and large-mesh gill nets. Gill nets were preferred over other gear types because they were relatively inexpensive to obtain and maintain, and highly effective at catching fish. Unfortunately, gill nets also indiscriminately harvested all fish species in the targeted size range and produced very high levels of bycatch mortality of non-target species. Fishery managers realized that for lake trout rehabilitation and sport fishing programs for salmon and walleye to reach their full potential, a significant reduction in the mortality of non-target species by the commercial fishing industry was necessary. Therefore, in 1972 the DNR banned the use of small-mesh gill nets throughout the Great Lakes. This action especially influenced near shore locations because small-mesh gill nets were fished in shallow bays that often serve as the nursery grounds for juvenile fish. By replacing these gill nets with small-mesh trap nets, mortality was greatly reduced and an extremely high percentage of non-target and undersized fish began being released alive. This action was followed in 1974 with a ban on large-mesh gill nets in all Michigan waters of the Great Lakes because of their detrimental effects on efforts to rehabilitate lake trout and expand the newly established salmon fishery. As was the case with near shore small mesh gear, large-mesh gill nets were replaced with less lethal trap net gear in the main basin of the lakes. The elimination of gill nets from the state-licensed fishery took many years to fully implement due to an exhaustive court battle. In the end, most fishers successfully switched to trap nets but some simply chose not to continue in the state-licensed fishery due to the lost access to gill nets. By 1981, the number of commercial licenses had decreased to 120 with a total harvest of approximately 10,800,000 pounds with alewife, channel catfish, carp, and lake whitefish continuing to account for much of the catch.

Diagram of trap net
Great Lake Trap Nets are up to 1,500 feet long (1,000 feet of "lead"), 500 feet wide, and 40 feet tall when set on the lake bottom land. The marking requirements pictured are for a state-licensed trap net set with 16 feet of water or more above the top of the net.

One of the unexpected consequences of the DNR banning the use of gillnets in the Great Lakes was the splitting of tribal commercial fisheries from the state-licensed fishery. Prior to the 1970's, Michigan's Native peoples commercially fished under the state license system. However the implementation of Limited Entry in 1970 and the banning of gill nets later in the decade were not popular with commercial fishers. As a result, tribal fishers began to assert their treaty right to fish in the Great Lakes free of state interference. During the 1970s, treaty fishing rights were adjudicated by the federal court system which reaffirmed the Treaty of 1836's tribal rights to fish outside regulations set by the state. Realizing that joint management of the resource between the governments was necessary, in 1985, the first Consent Decree was completed between the state, the tribes, and federal government. This agreement essentially established how the Great Lake commercial resources would be allocated between the state and tribes for the next 15 years. As a result of the 1985 Consent Decree, many state-licensed commercial fishers were either displaced or bought out of the fishery by the state to accommodate treaty fishing in eastern Lake Superior, Northern Lake Huron, and the majority of Lake Michigan within the state's jurisdiction.

For more information on treaty fishing in Michigan please visit the DNR Tribal Coordination Unit's webpage at http://www.michigan.gov/tribalcoordination.

By 1991, only 65 state licenses remained with an annual harvest around 9 million pounds. Lake whitefish, channel catfish, and common carp constituted the bulk of the total. In the early 1990s, alewife was reserved as forage for the salmon sport fishery and was no longer a part of the commercial harvest. Additionally, the relative importance of each remaining species shifted significantly. Lake whitefish made a substantial recovery since the lows of the 1960s and now made up the bulk of the annual commercial harvest. Through the 1990s, the number of licenses remained steady, but annual state-licensed harvest declined to around 3.4 million pounds by 2001. This decrease was attributed to the disappearance of alewife from the Lake Michigan fishery and the lower marketability of channel catfish and common carp from Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie as a result of a raised public consciousness about contaminants in Great Lakes fish. Additionally, advancements in aquaculture during the 1990s and mass production of farm raised tilapia and catfish also contributed to the decline in demand for wild caught fish. Advancement in aquaculture also had an effect on the price commercial fishers received for their product with very little increase documented in the 90s and 00s.

The Department's fisheries management approaches remained consistent during the 1990s until 2000 when Michigan entered into a new 20 year Consent Agreement with the Federal Government and the Native American tribes of the 1836 treaty. As was the case in 1985, additional state-licensed commercial licenses were bought out of the fishery by the state to accommodate tribal commercial fishers. Also for the first time in state history, annual total allowable catch parameters for lake trout, whitefish, and bloater chubs were placed on the tribal and state-licensed fisheries. This action resulted in most Lake Michigan fishers and those fishers operating east of Marquette in Lake Superior fishing an under annual whitefish quota. As a result of the 2000 Consent Decree buyout as well as some additional operations simply dropping out of the fishery, the total number of state commercial fishing licenses declined to 51 by 2011.

The Current Commercial Fishery
Today the state-licensed commercial fishery looks very different than it did 50 years ago. There was a time when Great Lakes commercial fishing was a huge industry with thousands of licenses employing tens of thousands of people but those days are almost forgotten. The modern commercial fishery has been consolidated and streamlined. Currently there are 51 state issued commercial fishing licenses in Michigan. They're spread out over all four of the Great Lakes, though not all 51 licenses are actually fished in a given year. Roughly, 35 of the 51 licenses harvest fish each year. The others simply maintain their licenses out of a sense that the license alone may have value due to the limited-entry system. Of the 35 licenses that actually harvest fish, there are approximately 25 businesses since several businesses own and utilize more than one license. Each business usually employs somewhere between five to ten people. Most of the businesses are generational in nature and often passed down from one generation to the next. It is very common to see father and son working side-by-side on the vessel, at the dock, or in the store house.

Father and son fishing on Lake Superior
Father and son working together on the boat, Lake Superior.

Today's commercial fishers are heavily regulated including where they can fish, what they can catch and what equipment they can use. Each license specifies the types and amounts of gear to be used. For the most part, the gear each license can use is a fixed commodity that does not change from year to year. Commercial fishermen when authorized by specific license provision can use set hooks, impoundment nets, deep-water small-mesh gill nets and seines. Trap nets are by far and away, the most common gear accounting for 95 percent of the state-licensed commercial harvest. Trap nets gather and hold fish alive, so when lifted, fishermen not only collect the fish at their freshest, but can generally release non-commercial species or sub-legal specimens back into the water alive.

Two fisherman sorting live fish on commercial fishing boat
Sorting live whitefish from a trap net, Lake Huron.

The fisher's day is pretty standard across the industry regardless of the species of fish being targeted or the type of gear being fished. It usually entails getting to the dock between 6 and 6:30 am five days a week. The season starts at ice out in early April and runs through the end of December. As you can imagine the weather and temperature are not always the most enjoyable. At the dock the crew will load enough ice and plastic totes to store that day's catch for the return trip to port. In order to operate, every license pretty much has to have an ice machine on site at the dock. Once on the water, distance to the first net varies widely by operation. Sometimes it is a quick 20 minute trip and other times it takes several hours. The nets have been fishing on average 3 to 6 days and are ready to be emptied. Once at the net, the fish are removed and measured to make sure they are legal size to keep. The legal fish are immediately iced and put in storage below deck to ensure freshness while the sublegal fish are released. Depending on how good the fishing is a trap netter will lift anywhere from 1 to 8 nets in a single day before returning to the dock mid-afternoon where the fish are off loaded and the deck washed down and prepped for the next trip. If selling their product at wholesale the buyer is often waiting with a freezer truck to immediately take the fish for processing. If the fisher operates his own fish house then it is time to start dressing and cleaning the catch back at the store in order to meet tomorrow's demand. Processing one's own catch adds several hours onto the day.

Two fisherman putting ice on fish to keep fresh
Icing down the fish totes for storage in the hull, Lake Superior.

A unique trawling fishery occurs in the Michigan waters of Green Bay. In existence since the 1960s when it primarily harvested invasive alewife, the trawl is currently operated by Ruleau Bros. Inc., out of Cedar River. It harvests rainbow smelt in the spring and whitefish during the remainder of the year. The only one of its kind in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes, the trawl is regulated by annual harvest quotas for whitefish and smelt, the size of trawling net (width and height), as well as the mesh size in cod or bag end. It is a very unique fishery!

Fish in net on a boats deck
A net full of whitefish on the Ruleau Bros. trawl, Lake Michigan.

The commercial fishery targets a wide variety of species but the harvest of an individual license is dependent largely on fishing location. Assigned fishing grounds can vary widely in both productivity and species availability. For instance, fisheries in Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie harvest a diverse array of fish species including common carp, catfish, quillback, buffalo, gizzard shad, bullhead, gold fish and some whitefish. There's also a lucrative yellow perch fishery that is unique to Saginaw Bay. However, outside of those areas, the state-licensed commercial fishery on the Great lakes is essentially for a single species - lake whitefish. So much so that whitefish makes up about 85 percent of the commercial fishery by volume and more than 90 percent by value. Remove Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie from the equation and those numbers quickly approach 100%.

Fish on ice to keep fresh
Iced lake whitefish, Lake Huron.

Significant changes have taken place in the Great Lakes over the last several decades and as the Great Lakes have changed, the commercial fishery has to. Once-flourishing fisheries for smelt and bloater chubs in Lake Michigan have practically disappeared. In the 1990s and early 2000s, commercial fishermen harvested 150,000 pounds of smelt and 125,000 pounds of chubs annually but recently harvest has declined to less than 5,000 pounds combined. Similarly, the yellow perch fishery in Saginaw Bay produces between 35,000 and 80,000 pounds a year and has the potential to be larger, but the perch population isn't there in historic numbers. Changes in Great Lake productivity due to invasive species like quagga and zebra mussels are believed to be behind the declines in these popular commercial species.

Fisherman removing chubs from gillnet
Removing bloater chubs from specialized deep water gillnet, Lake Michigan.

As with all types of fishing, if there are more fish in the water, there will be more fish caught. Strict restrictions on the number of commercial licenses and amount of gear the fishermen can use guarantees that the fish stocks are not overexploited. If fish populations go up, the catch goes up. If they go down, harvest will soon follow. If the number of licenses and amount of gear wasn't fixed, the fishery could simply use more gear and continue to fish the stocks harder as they declined. This was common practice within the commercial fishery in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s but that isn't the case now. Today Great Lakes commercial fishing is small and well-regulated enough that it no longer determines fish populations as it did many years ago. Now the driving force behind fish stocks in the Great Lakes are invasive species. They're ultimately the determining factor in what our fish populations look like.

For more information on Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) in Michigan please visit the state's AIS website at http://www.michigan.gov/aquaticinvasives.

Fisherman waiting on boat deck for first catch of the day
Waiting on the day's first whitefish haul, Lake Michigan.

While Michigan's commercial fishery is almost entirely devoted to table fare with whitefish, yellow perch, channel catfish, etc. in high demand at retail counters and restaurants throughout the country, minor portions of the harvest are sold for other purposes. For example, there is a seasonal market for Lake Erie gizzard shad on the East Coast to be used as bait by Atlantic Ocean crab fishermen. Similarly, a commercial fisher might keep a couple dozen suckers once in a while on request of the local recreational catfish anglers for use as cut bait. While these alternative outlets sometimes provide niche avenues for Great Lake product, the marketing and sale of Michigan's commercial harvest for anything other than table fare is the exception, not the rule.

Fisherman on deck fishing
A great summer day on the water, Lake Erie.

In marketing commercial fish product for food, the fishery ranges from licensees who simply harvest the fish and sell them wholesale "in the round" (the whole fish) to distributors for movement all across the country, to those fishers who operate their own in-state fresh fish markets for local retail sale. For the most part, fishing licenses that sell their catch to wholesalers are often the state's larger fishers that operate on volume. Because they harvest a larger amount of fish, they can be successful selling their catch at wholesale prices. Additional profit can be made by fishers willing to clean, fillet, and sell their fish at retail. Smoking, canning, and pickling their fish can add even more value. Commercial fishing businesses that operate their own retail fish houses can make four to five times more on their catch than they would by simply selling their fish "in the round" to a wholesaler. Often times these outlets will also meet additional customer demands with a mix of out-of-state ocean caught fish that are added to the retail counter for good measure. This practice of marketing and selling "value added product" locally is an important aspect of the larger fishery but is often times critically important to the smaller fishing operations that harvest more limited volumes of fish.

Retail counter selling fish
The typical retail counter at Michigan fresh fish house.

The gross dockside value of the Michigan state-licensed and tribal commercial fishing operations, based on average price reported per pound of fish sold is conservatively estimated at between $10 million and $12 million, annually. The Gross dockside value is the value that is paid directly to the licensed fishers before annual costs. Only after operating costs including staff, fuel, insurance, and any repair expenses incurred during the long season are paid does a fisher know whether their operation has made a profit for the year. Of course once all that fish is processed and moves through the retail outlets, there's a much greater impact on Michigan's overall economy (wholesalers, stores, restaurants, etc.). The total impact of commercial fishing to Michigan's economy which is probably 4 to 5 times the gross value paid to the fishers.

Statewide tribal and state-licensed commercial harvest and dockside value 2001-2013
Lake Superior state-licensed commercial harvest and dockside value 2001-2013
Lake Michigan state-licensed commercial harvest and dockside value 2001-2013
Lake Huron state-licensed commercial harvest and dockside value 2001-2013
Lake Erie state-licensed commercial harvest and dockside value 2001-2013

For more information including recipes, buying local whitefish, as well as stories from the fishers and wholesalers who make their living on the Great Lakes commercial harvest visit Michigan Sea Grant's Great Lakes Whitefish website at http://www.greatlakeswhitefish.com.

Store front of Thill's Fish House
Thill's Fish House store front in Marquette, MI.

Maps of Recent Commercial Fishing Locations
Please refer to the following lake maps for locations where commercial fishing has occurred from 2009-2013. Please be mindful that commercial nets can be placed in additional locations throughout the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes and that these maps only provide a general background of recent activity. Always keep an eye out for the buoys marking commercial fishing gear and steer clear when out on the water.

Lake Superior Map
Lake Michigan Map
Lake Huron Map
Lake Erie Map

As a safety measure, anglers trolling lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior with downriggers should have wire cutters on board with direct and immediate access to them. Should fishing gear get tangled up with a net or other obstruction below the water's surface, anglers need to be prepared to cut downriggers or wire cables free.

Buoy in water - far view
Buoy in water - close up view
A typical staff buoy used to mark commercial nets on the Great Lakes.

References
Brege, D.A., and N.R. Kevern. 1978. Michigan commercial Fishing regulations: A summary of Public Acts and conservation commission orders, 1865 through 1975. Michigan Sea Grant Program, MICHU-SG-78-605, Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Dempsey, D. 2001. Ruin and recovery; Michigan's rise as a conservation leader. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Michigan: Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 1974. Michigan Fisheries Centennial Report 1873-1973. Michigan DNR, Fisheries Management Report 6, Lansing.

Tody, W.H. 2003. History of Michigan's fisheries. Copy Central, Traverse City, Michigan.




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