Common Fishtown Questions
Gabrielle Grobbel – Fishtown Preservation
While working in the Fishtown Welcome Center this summer, I have been asked a wide range of questions. Some visitors ask for more details on the history of Fishtown, while others are interested in the ecological factors that influence the commercial fishery. I have enjoyed getting to know the many different sides of Fishtown and learning how they intertwine and connect. History and science are melded together in Fishtown, so it’s fascinating to approach questions from both sides.
I noticed a trend of common questions during my time in the Welcome Center, so I began writing them down. Here are some of the frequently asked questions that I think are most important to know when visiting Fishtown.
“How old are the shanties?” The Fishtown shanties are dated from as early as 1903 to the mid-1990’s. The oldest surviving shanty within Fishtown is The Otherside Shanty located on the south side of the river. Previously known as the Cook and Brown Shanty and used for commercial fishing, the shanty was altered over the years to fit the needs of the fishermen. It wasn’t until 2000 that the shanty underwent significant renovations to turn it into the vacation rental it’s used as today.
Once storage sheds, ice houses, and net sheds, their historic charm shines through today as retail shops, adaptively reused to support the ever increasing tourism since the 1960’s. The Morris Shanty and Carlson’s Fishery are still exclusively used for commercial fishing purposes, however.
Next time you’re in Fishtown, look for the interactive panels found near the front door of each shanty. They act as a great resource to dive a little deeper into the history of the building, and find out who owned it and what it was previously used for. The people and stories behind each shanty are an important part of what makes them worth preserving today.
“Are sea lampreys still an issue in Lake Michigan?” Sea Lampreys are still an issue in all of the Great Lakes. They were introduced to the Great Lakes through the ballast water of trans-Atlantic ships. Their numbers exploded in the upper Great Lakes during the 1940’s and led to the immediate decimation of lake trout, whitefish, and chub. These species were crucial to the commercial fishing industry at the time.
An estimated 100 million pounds of fish were killed by sea lampreys each year by the 1950’s, according to Cory Brant from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Commercial fishing was negatively impacted all over the Great Lakes, and Fishtown was hit hard during those years. The collapse of lake trout, whitefish, and chub was one of the reasons that fishermen in Fishtown diversified to include tourism to keep the fishing village afloat.
In order to keep the sea lamprey populations at bay, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission spends nearly $20 million annually treating streams and tributaries that drain into the Great Lakes. They use selective poisons that are harmful to sea lampreys, but not the species they prey on. Although they are not completely eliminated from the Great Lakes, their population is about 10% of what it was previously.
“Why was the water level so high last year?” The water levels in the Great Lakes are dependent on weather patterns, precipitation, runoff, and evaporation. The fluctuations that occur throughout the year are part of the natural cycle of the lake. Between summer and winter, the water level may change nearly 10-12 inches, though the level can change over the course of a single day as well.
Short-term water level changes are a result of wind and wave action on the shore. During particularly severe weather, extremely strong winds may blow across the lake in one direction causing a storm surge or imbalance of water in the lake. The water level increases on the side of the lake that the wind is blowing toward while it decreases on the opposite side.
Long-term changes in average water levels mainly reflect the fluctuations in temperature and precipitation each year. Winters with higher than average snowfall and ice cover will lead to high water levels. Mild winters with low ice cover and an increased evaporation rate will lead to low water levels. An increase in precipitation leading up to the previous year ultimately led to higher than average water levels in the Great Lakes region.
“Is there an active commercial fishery in Fishtown?” Yes! Fishtown Preservation owns the Joy and the Janice Sue fishing tugs and their commercial fishing licenses. While the Janice Sue is currently out of the water undergoing repairs, the Joy, captained by our fisherman Joel Petersen, is actively fishing for whitefish in the Manitou Passage. Joel’s family has fished for generations out of Muskegon. With Joel’s help, Fishtown Preservation is working tirelessly to keep commercial fishing alive in Fishtown for generations to come.
“What can I do to help Fishtown?” Fishtown Preservation Society is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that relies on grants and public donations to continue to operate. One small donation can go a long way in contributing to the renovation of historical shanties damaged from age and flooding, paying off operational costs, and keeping our commercial fishing tugs active. Visiting Fishtown and telling others what Fishtown means to you is another great way to show your support.
“Where are the bathrooms?” I couldn’t leave out the number one question I am asked each day in the Welcome Center. The public restrooms are located in the building built into the hill near the entrance of the Leland Harbor parking lot. You may want to write this one down for your next visit.
Greeting visitors in the Welcome Center and answering questions allows me to learn a little bit more about Fishtown each day. I love being surrounded by curiosity and wonder for this small fishing village, and the questions it inspires. Please come visit me or another Fishtown Preservation Staff member in the Welcome Center to chat when you get a chance, we are always happy to answer any questions you may have!
Gabrielle Grobbel is the Fishtown Preservation Society Intern for the summer of 2021. She is a marine science student at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina and is happy to be returning to her home state of Michigan and for the opportunity to learn more about the historical and beloved site of Fishtown and the life of the Great Lakes.