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The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on the Earth's surface, home to a fragile fishery, and delicate shoreline beaches and dunes. They are also central to northern Michigan tourism, economies and our way of life.

Great Lakes fish feud moves to Michigan Senate

Noelle Riley
Interlochen Public Radio

Commercial fishers say a package of bills that cleared the Michigan House of Representatives last week will put them out of business. The bills would classify lake trout, walleye and perch as game fish, eliminating the option for a commercial harvest.

While commercial fishers do not target these fish now, except for perch in Saginaw Bay, the industry was hoping a revision of the law regulating commercial fishing would allow them to diversify their catch. Instead, the package of bills would ensure that the industry is almost entirely dependent on whitefish, a prized species but one that is showing signs of distress in most of the Great Lakes, according to researchers.

Commercial fishers say the legislation will tie their hands.

“The writing’s on the wall,” says Amber Petersen, owner of The Fish Monger’s Wife in Muskegon, whose husband has a state commercial license. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going to happen.”

Sport fishing groups are thrilled with the legislation. An email from Michigan United Conservation Clubs announced fish are “one step closer to swimming away from commercial nets.”

“Hunter and angler dollars fund the bulk of fisheries management in our state,” said MUCC executive director Amy Trotter. “Our members have demonstrated they won’t stand for subsiding the commercial industry.”

The legislation is backed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Regulatory Affairs Manager Seth Herbst says the department's intent is to update arcane rules that are 100-years old and to make fines for overfishing large enough to deter illegal behavior. Right now, the maximum fine is $100.

When asked about the concerns of commercial fishers, Herbst said they can keep doing what they are doing.

“There’s nothing in these bills that would negatively influence or really change from status quo the whitefish fishery we have in the Great Lakes water today,” says Herbst.

But the food web in the lakes may not remain status quo. Across Lakes Huron and Michigan, research shows fewer whitefish as lake trout numbers rise. Particularly disturbing to fishery biologists is a "dramatic decline" in young white fish. This is what is known as a failure in "recruitment," meaning young fish are not becoming adults.

Credit Technical Fisheries Committee
Number of 3-year-old whitefish caught around Beaver Island.

That’s why Amber Petersen says it’s a bad idea to put into law that some fish are strictly game fish and off limits to commercial harvest. 

“We won’t be able to adjust to changes in fish population,” she says.

The feud between the commercial and sport groups is more than 50 years old. In the press release celebrating the recent legislative victory, MUCC notes how recreational anglers have managed the Great Lakes since the 1960s.

That’s when salmon from the Pacific Ocean were introduced successfully and the lakes became one of the most popular sport fishing destinations in the world. The state tried to ban gill nets and began winnowing down the number of commercial licenses available. In the 1970s, the head of the Fish Division openly spoke of commercial fishing as a relic of a bygone era not worth keeping around as the excitement of salmon fishing transformed the coastline.

In 2017, the state showed some concern for commercial interests when the Michigan DNR supported legislation that angered sport fishing groups. It would have allowed commercial fishers to keep and sell a small amount of walleye and lake trout. Today, the department in Lansing appears more aligned with sport fishing interests. The DNR’s director, Daniel Eichinger, was previously the head of MUCC. 

The commercial industry is promoting competing legislation in the Michigan Senate. Their proposal is to set aside 10 percent of the total catch of a fish species for commercial nets and leave the rest for sport fishing.

None of this would impact tribal fishing rights retained by five Michigan tribes under treaties signed in the 1800s. Michigan and the tribes are currently renegotiating the compact that governs how the state and tribes share the fish.