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Gloves come off in fight over commercial fishing in Michigan

Peter Payette

The few commercial fishers that remain in Michigan are suing the state’s Department of Natural Resources over changes to industry rules. 


They say the new provisions will make commercial fishing all but impossible. The lawsuit, filed by the Michigan Fish Producers Association, claims the actions of the state threaten to deprive its members and their employees of their livelihoods.

“Here in Leland, you can’t fish,” says Joel Petersen, the last state-licensed fishermen working out of Fishtown. “We’re done.”

Michigan’s DNR director Dan Eichinger wrote the order late last year. It would prohibit fishing in water deeper than 80 feet. Petersen says they can’t catch fish at those depths except for a couple weeks in the spring. 

The order would also close the whitefish season for October in Lake Michigan, a month that can be especially lucrative. 

The action follows years of wrangling in the Michigan Legislature over attempts to rewrite the law for commercial fishing, which dates back to 1929. Everyone agrees the existing statute is arcane but a key disagreement is about rules for fish like walleye and lake trout. The DNR and sport fishing groups want the law to limit commercial fishing to whitefish. The commercial fishers say they need more diversity to survive.

“Whitefish population’s down” says Petersen. “That’s why we were asking for a little bit of help from the DNR by letting us take a few trout.”

After a set of bills backed by the DNR failed to pass the state Senate last year, the agency said it wouldn’t have the authority to continue to allow certain provisions, like fishing in water deeper than 80 feet. Fishers also say the DNR won’t renew their commercial licenses until the law is changed.

Typically, fishers receive renewals for their licenses from the DNR in December, but that didn’t happen this year. 

“I asked them if I could fish in 2021 in January and they said no,” says Robert Ruleau III, of Ruleau Bros. Inc., a seventh-generation fisherman in Menominee. 

Ordinarily, during a warm January like this year, he would be out on the water. “I’m losing tens of thousands of dollars a day right now by not being able to fish,” he says. 

Communications from the DNR make it clear that the order and delay in renewing commercial fishing licenses are a result of the failure of the legislature to update the statutes.

Senator Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah) attempted to draft compromise legislation this summer but the effort ended in a four minute hearing in December. A representative from the DNR appeared to say the agency would not support any of the more than 100 amendments McBroom had offered. 

“There’s zero support for a single amendment that I suggested?” asked McBroom.

The DNR’s legislative liaison Craig Burnett said the agency would need more time to evaluate the proposals.

Critics say the order is punishment for the industry fighting the agency’s legislative demands.

“When you look at the facts, it’s like retaliation,” says Dennis VanLandschoot, president of VanLandschoot and Son’s Fishery in Munising. “You didn’t support our bill, so we’re going to do this to you.”

Attorney Mike Perry, representing the Michigan Fish Producers Association, says the DNR’s actions violate fishers’ First Amendment rights. “These people are having their livelihoods held hostage by the department because of their position on some political issue here in Lansing,” he says. 

The DNR declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

Five Michigan tribes have fishing rights under a federal treaty signed in 1836 and the DNR order does not affect their operations. 

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio.
Lexi Krupp reports on science and the environment. Previously, she worked for Gimlet Media where she helped the Science Vs team distinguish what's fact from what's not. Her work has appeared in Audubon, Popular Science, VICE, and elsewhere.