The few full-timers left working as commercial fishers in Michigan received good news this month amid a tumultuous year for the industry.
Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said it will restore the rules that have governed state-licensed commercial fishing since 2015. The move reverses a previous order that had stripped license-holders of the ability to catch fish in water deeper than 80 feet, among other restrictions that would have effectively ended commercial fishing in Michigan, according to industry experts.
The recent order comes as a relief for many, but the future of the small industry remains precarious. It largely hangs on whether the state legislature can revise its decades-old laws.
“I wish I could say this solves everything, but it doesn’t,” says Amber Petersen, owner of The Fish Monger's Wife, a fish market based in Muskegon. “It just takes care of that immediate panic of ‘oh my god, we’re not going to have money this year.’”
New laws to govern the industry are urgently needed. “People on both sides of the issue agreed with that,” says state Senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan). The current legislation was last updated in 1969 and doesn’t reflect the reality of the fishery.
For years, legislators have been unable to reach a compromise that appeases the state’s sportfishing groups, the DNR, tribal fishers, and commercial fishers. A key sticking point has been whether commercial fishers can diversify the fish they harvest.
Right now, the only commercially-valuable fish they’re allowed to catch is whitefish, but that has posed a problem in recent years. “Whitefish are not doing too well in a lot of areas in the lakes,” says Cameron McMurry, owner of Big Stone Bay Fishery in Mackinaw City.
Meanwhile, commercial fishers in surrounding states and Canada can harvest species like lake trout and walleye, but Michigan fishers cannot. The DNR had pushed to make those fish permanently off limits to commercial fishing by classifying them as game fish.
Lawmakers have yet to introduce new bills this year, though staff attorneys are drafting legislation, according to McBroom.
Without new state laws, the agency’s most recent order will take effect in March and remains in place “until rescinded,” unlike previous orders, which had a specified expiration date.
The DNR declined to comment on the order or why they backtracked on their previous stance. (Last year, the department told IPR they don’t have the legal authority to maintain the 2020 commercial fishing rules — the rules they’ve now restored.)
The uncertainty of how long the order will last and lack of explanation for the change worries business owners like Petersen. “We have to keep up with what may or may not be coming our way. It’s exhausting,” she says.
Petersen wants to see new laws that secure commercial fishing rules for good. So does McMurry.
“I want to be left alone,” he says. “Let’s settle it. Let’s get something we can agree on based on science.”