Commercial Fisheries

Commercial Fishing, Alpena and Harrisville area of Lake Huron

Alpena was one of the early commercial fishing ports in Michigan and fishing was a mainstay of Alpena's economy from the community's earliest days through the 1950s. Alpena was also the first place large trapnets were fished for whitefish in the upper Great Lakes. After about 1955, Alpena's commercial fisheries fell on hard times. Lake trout and whitefish, the most important species in the commercial harvest then, were decimated by a combination of sea lamprey depredation and excessive harvest. The Michigan DNR prohibited harvest of lake trout and in the late 1960s banned use of gillnets in its commercial fisheries because gillnets kill most of their catch and nontarget species like lake trout in the catch could not be released alive. Today all State-licensed and tribal commercial fishing south of Hammond Bay employs trapnets to harvest lake whitefish. Whitefish stocks are completely recovered and whitefish commercial landings in Alpena are near 750,000 pounds annually. Alpena is once again one of the leading commercial ports for lake whitefish in the Great Lakes.

Figure 1. Illustration of a Great Lakes commercial trapnet.

A Consent Decree signed in year 2000 regarding treaty fishing rights of Chippewa-Ottawa tribes of Indians covered by the Treaty of 1836 caused all State-licensed commercial fishing in Treaty Waters of northern Lake Huron to be relocated south of the 45th parallel (which crosses Thunder Bay). Thus two commercial fisheries now operate out of Alpena: Gauthier and Spaulding Fisheries and Rochefort Fisheries. Each operates under a maximum harvest quota of 400,000 pounds of lake whitefish. Neither license is allowed to harvest trout, walleye, perch, or salmon. The two operations use trapnets, which work by guiding the fish along what are known as "leads" to the "pot" of the net, where the fish are held alive until the net is lifted (see illustration). Figure 1. Illustration of a Great Lakes commercial trapnet.

Nontarget fish like trout and salmon are released when the net is lifted, while legal sized (19 inches or larger) whitefish are harvested. The whitefish are sold locally to area restaurants, marketed fresh to the public through outlets here in Alpena, and sold to regional resellers.

Figure 2. Boat with net.

Trapnet locations: The Michigan DNR monitors the harvest, modifies quotas to protect whitefish from overharvest, and counts and records the condition of nontarget fish released. The two fisheries in Alpena cooperate with efforts to map their net locations to assist recreational fishers navigate around their gear. A current map and navigation coordinates for each net are given Trapnet Locations.

Tribal fisheries employing trapnets operate out of the Rockport, Presque Isle, and Rogers City areas. Coordinates for these trapnets are not made available to the DNR and anglers are advised to be especially vigilant for their gear when fishing in this area of north-central Lake Huron.

When fishing in a commercial harvest area, anglers are advised to avoid locations of trapnets. These nets if snagged by trolling gear are much too big to lift; any attempt to lift the nets to retrieve gear could risk swamping of your boat. The best method of avoiding nets is to punch in coordinates of the "pot" provided in the table given in Trapnet Locations. When the net is observed, remember that it extends about 1,000 ft shoreward of the pot and that staff buoys with flags mark each end of the net. Do not attempt to fish between the flags.

Commercial Fishery Studies
Monitoring for harvest quota estimation: The Alpena Fishery Station monitors commercial harvest and biological parameters from lake whitefish. Resulting data are used in computer models that digitally reproduce the whitefish population and estimate current and past harvest rates and other sources of mortality. Harvest quotas are set using the models such that mortality rates remain at sustainable levels so that desirable reproduction rates and size structures of the fishery are maintained. Our monitoring has also shown that recruitment (reproduction), growth rates, and condition factors (robustness) of lake whitefish have declined. The declines appear to be at least partially caused by declining food availability caused by invasive species, zebra mussels and quagga mussels in particular.

Study of trapnet depths on survival: The DNR's restriction of commercial fishing gear to trapnets is predicated on high survival rates of fish caught in trapnets. Presently, State regulations prevent trapnet fishing in waters deeper than 90 feet. The rationale for this regulation is that nontarget fish would bloat and not survive release if lifted from waters deeper than 90 feet. This rationale, however, has never been tested. In 2001 we initiated a study to determine if indeed trout, salmon, walleyes, and undersized whitefish caught in 90 feet of water survived capture and handling better than those caught in 130 feet of depth. The study was completed in 2003. The results are being analyzed and a report will be published in late 2004.