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New bill, same conflict between recreational and state-licensed commercial fishers

The door of an old fishing shanty in Fishtown, Leland. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
The door of an old fishing shanty in Fishtown, Leland. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

There’s a cold, on-again off-again rain on the docks of Fishtown in Leland, a collection of old fishing shanties and smokehouses situated right where the Leland River flows into Lake Michigan.

There are tourists braving the fall weather, looking for fish in the river and wandering into the few shops that are still open for the season.

But it's a sleepy day by Fishtown standards.

"Millions of people have visited here," said Amanda Holmes, executive director of Fishtown Preservation Society. "We probably get between 300 and 400,000 people [who] visit in the summertime and they come here, and they have a great experience. Most of them are not thinking about it as a commercial fishing village."

But it was, once. At its peak in the early 20th century, hundreds of commercial fishers operated out of Fishtown, harvesting pretty much any species the lake had to offer.

Old shanties, docks and even a few gas tanks from that era are still standing today.

"A lot of it's exactly the same," Holmes said. "But what you don't have is all the boats."

There are only two state-licensed commercial fishing vessels in Fishtown these days, both owned by the preservation society that Holmes oversees.

Only one of those boats can harvest whitefish, the main species left to harvest commercially in Lake Michigan. But even they are in decline, largely because of invasive species.

So Holmes wants a new bill — House Bill 5108 — to pass, or something similar to it. The bill would open up certain species historically reserved for recreational fishing to commercial fishing.

Holmes says it would throw a lifeline to Michigan’s commercial fishing industry and preserve an important part of the state’s fishing heritage.

But not everyone sees it that way, including Denny Grinold.

"They want a bigger piece of the action," he said.

He’s among many who think it could spell disaster for recreational fishing, a multi-billion dollar industry in Michigan.

Grinold is a charter boat captain out of Grand Haven, and he’s chair of the Lake Michigan Citizens Fishery Advisory Committee. They advise state regulators on how to manage fish in the lake.

He’s worried about part of the bill that would make 25 percent of species like lake trout, walleye and perch (which have historically been reserved for recreational fishing) eligible for commercial catch.

"If that's going to happen, it's just going to be less fish for sport fisherman to catch," Grinold said.

Grinold says recreational fishing isn’t what it used to be, and that more strain on the fishery would just make it even worse. He worries if the bill passes, it would hurt fishing tourism and lower demand for charters.

Charter fishing boats and sightseeing vessels in Leland Harbor. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
Charter fishing boats and a cruise ship in Leland Harbor. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

Amanda Holmes, with Fishtown Preservation Society, says their boat wasn't even able to catch its total quota of whitefish this season.

Oftentimes, she says, when fishers put out trap nets for whitefish, they end up catching more lake trout — which they're legally required to throw back.

Mike Burda co-owns Carlson's in Leland, a fish processor and retailer that sells smoked whitefish, fish jerky and fish sausage.

He says people come to Carlson's specifically to buy and eat local fish.

"And I'd say 95 percent of them don't even know that the ability to do that is at risk all the time," said Burda. "I don't think people know for the most part how small the commercial fishing industry is and how vulnerable it is because of that."

Officials estimate there are only around 15 active state-licensed commercial fishers in Michigan.

And Burda says he worries that without regulatory change, there will come a point where he simply won’t be able to buy fish caught in the state.

"If you can't get fish that's from your state and fresh, then what do you have? And we would lose a lot of our business," Burda said.

Previous efforts to bring commercial and recreational fishers together to work on a solution haven’t really been successful. Plus, there are still some X-factors, like what impact more commercial fishing in the Great Lakes might have on tribal fisheries, which are protected by treaty.

"I mean, look around, we're in a state that has so much water, and so much resources and so much opportunity for recreation and local, fresh protein and foods, and it's a small war."
Mike Burda
co-owner, Carlson's Fish

Randy Claramunt, the Fisheries Chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says he wants to find a way forward. But this time around, he sees a couple key problems with the bill.

One is the level of allowable catch for commercial fishers. The other is that the bill makes a commercial fishing license a right instead of a privilege.

"It really doesn't give me as a fisheries manager, or management agency, the ability to say, 'There's a limited opportunity here.' And then when it goes away, it goes away," said Claramunt.

He worries that if, for example, the walleye population crashed one year, commercial fishers would still have a legal right to harvest 25 percent of it.

Mike Burda, the fish processor, says he also hopes the two sides can come together soon, before it’s too late for commercial fishers.

"I mean, look around, we're in a state that has so much water, and so much resources and so much opportunity for recreation and local, fresh protein and foods, and it's a small war."

Bill 5108 — which is still in the House — is just the latest battle.

Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.