About State-Licensed Commercial Fishing in Michigan
For nearly 200 years, the Great Lakes has provided a bounty of fresh-caught fish for commercial harvest. A major industry which was once employing thousands of people, has been ravaged by a number of factors that have shrunk its size and limited the value of the commercial harvest over the past 70 years. Overharvest and mis-management of these resources played a significant role in the decline of valuable fish species, especially before modern fisheries management began in the mid-20th century. Ecological changes to the Great Lakes caused by industrial pollution and the introduction of invasive species (i.e. sea lamprey, alewife, round goby) disrupted the food web of the lakes. Intentional introduction of sportfish (e.g., smelt, Atlantic and Pacific salmon, and many others), along with climate change, and the rise of the recreational sport fishing industry has all played a significant role in marginalizing a once-thriving commercial fishing industry.
Today, Michigan has only a handful of state-licensed commercial fishers operating. In Michigan waters, what was once an industry with 339 licenses almost 100 years ago, now is limited to only 51 commercial fishing licenses of which 41 are considered active, or are actively fishing. Sixteen fishers fished in 2019, with 13 fishers primary income from commercial fishing. Fishtown Preservation Society holds two of these licenses, and operates only one boat that fishes trap nets for whitefish.
Media Coverage of the Current Commercial Fishing Issues
Leelanau Ticker || Emily Tyra || 8 February 2021
Great Lakes Now || Dave Spratt || 8 February 2021
All Things Considered/National Public Radio || Lexi Krupp || 12 January 2020 (3 minutes)
Leelanau Ticker || Craig Manning || 11 January 2021
Points North (IPR) || Lexi Krupp and Peter Payette || 9 January 2020 (6:36 minutes)
Leelanau Enterprise || Alan Campbell || 7 January 2021
Interlochen Public Radio || Peter Payette || 5 January 2021
Commercial Fishing Q & A
Q: Is commercial fishing effectively a “horse and buggy,” or primitive, industry that will inevitably be part of our past, not our future?
A: No. The Michigan waters of the Great Lakes is a vast area, comprising nearly 35,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the area of waters under the jurisdiction of the other Great Lakes states combined. This area is capable of producing high quality fresh fish for public consumption. Fish fall into several categories: game fish, commercial fish, and fish that have both sport and commercial value.
- Game fish in the Great Lakes are most often planted, or stocked by hatchery-raised fish species. Examples include Atlantic salmon and coho.
- Commercial fish species are fish that are valuable and abundant enough to support large volumes to harvest, and that can be caught with commercial fishing gear. Often, commercial species are either of little interest to sport fishermen or very difficult to catch with sport-fishing gear. Members of the whitefish family (including chubs and lake herring) form the backbone of the current commercial fishing in the Great Lakes – with whitefish comprising more than 90% of the value of all landings. “Rough fish” such as suckers and carp are harvested for sale in some locations.
- There are a number of species that traditionally were commercial species, but now are highly desirable as both commercial and sport fish catch. These fish often include yellow perch, smelt, walleye, and lake trout. When there is a harvestable surplus of any of these species, fisheries managers determine how to allocate fish among user groups.
The Great Lakes are capable of supporting a thriving commercial fishery alongside a thriving recreational fishery. However, especially in Michigan, fisheries managers have decided to exclude commercial fishers from any allowable harvest of species that have both sport and recreational value.
Q: Does Michigan manage its commercial fishery differently from neighboring states, Tribal Nations, and Ontario?
A: Yes and No. Our neighboring states, Tribal Nations, and Canada, like Michigan, make attempts to balance the interests of competing user groups. But Michigan has historically led the way in developing its sport fishing industry in Great Lakes waters. Michigan stocked coho salmon in 1966 and announced that sport fishing would take precedence to commercial interests whenever there was a perceived conflict between the two groups. Through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Michigan began to actively reduce the number of commercial licenses issued, banned large mesh gill nets (due to by-catch of game species), and closed large areas of the lakes to commercial fishing gear in favor of sport-fishing only catch.
Michigan’s emphasis on sport fishing over the commercial fishery is reflected in the near disappearance of commercial fishing in the state despite significant opportunities on four of the five Great Lakes. Today there are 16 active commercial fishing operations in Michigan waters of the Great Lakes, fishing in an area of roughly 35,000 square miles.
Q: What does the proposed re-write of Michigan’s commercial fishing statute seek to accomplish?
A: Michigan’s statute governing commercial fishing was first enacted in 1929, with no revisions or amendments since the mid-1970’s. Since that time, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has regulated commercial fishing through the issuance of “Fishing Orders,” under broad authority given to the director of the DNR. Fisheries managers have consistently favored sports fishing interests for 50 years.
The statute is very prescriptive about a number of details in the fishery, including locations and seasons for harvesting fish, types of gear and gear specifications, reporting requirements and penalties for non-compliance. But the statute also gives wide latitude for the Director of the DNR to promulgate regulations to respond to changes in conditions within the fishery. That authority was always taken to include the ability to adjust seasons and harvest quotas, to alter gear requirements, to allow experimentation with new types of gear, and to allow harvest of fish not traditionally allowed under a research permit. Adjustments to regulations sometimes applied to virtually all license holders, or might be conditions of an individual permit if requested.
The proposed update of the commercial fishing statute was written largely by the DNR with significant input from user groups, especially the sport fishing industry. The proposed statute has a number of provisions that simply modernized the licensure, reporting, and penalty provisions of the law. While commercial fishermen found some of these provisions overly onerous, in general they recognized the need for update and consequently compromises were reached on these provisions.
The proposed, new statute in 2020 continued to allow for considerable discretion and powers for the Director of the DNR. These powers may modify or issue regulations to respond to sometimes rapidly changing conditions in the lakes and the availability of fish stocks for harvest. Given the ecological upheavals in the Great Lakes, and the cumbersome nature of any legislative response to rapidly changing conditions, broad discretion of managers is necessary. But this proposed statute expanded the list of “game fish” for the first time to include some of the fish that traditionally were both commercial and sport fish. If passed as introduced, and barring another major rewrite of the statute, the DNR director would never be able to allocate a harvest quota for lake trout, yellow perch, or walleye, as these fish would be designated as game fish only unless another bill is passed stating otherwise.
Allowing major additional species like walleye, yellow perch, and lake trout to be designated in statute as “game fish” only was one issue where agreement between DNR and commercial fisheries could not be reached.
Q: What is the status of the commercial fishing bills today?
A: Due to the new legislative term, the 2020 bills have died. Bills cannot be carried over legislative terms, so it can be expected that new versions of the commercial fishing bills introduced in 2020 will be proposed again to the Michigan legislature in 2021. In late November 2020, the DNR sent a letter to all licensed commercial fishers in the state reporting that it had found that its prior orders were issued under “confusing and conflicting legal authority, statute, rules, and orders.” The letter went on to summarize the modifications to the statute that would immediately be rescinded if the new bills did not pass into law in the 2020 legislative session. Among the most important of the provisions that would go back into effect was the 80-foot depth limitation for trap nets, and the closed season that would include both October and November for harvest of lake whitefish.
The Michigan Fish Producers Association did not see this coming. Many commercial fishing license holders, including Joel Petersen who leases the Joy from FPS, flatly states that if the new rules stand, they won’t be able to stay in business with these vastly shortened seasons and depth restrictions.
On December 30, 2020, the Michigan Fish Producers filed a class action suit against the DNR director and Fisheries chief. The complaint alleges that the imposition of new rules, together with the withholding of renewal of licenses, was an attempt to punish commercial fishermen for their involvement in the political process.
Q: What is the local impact of these developments for FPS and its fishing operation out of Leland?
A: FPS holds two licenses, one actively fished, and one not.
- The Janice Sue is licensed to fish small mesh gill nets for chubs. Chub stocks collapsed in the early 1970’s and have never recovered, so there is no chub fishery locally. The Janice Sue last fished for chub out of Leland in 2010.
- The Joy is licensed to fish 10 trap nets for whitefish. Currently, Joel Petersen operates Joy under an agreement with FPS in exchange for a small percentage of the proceeds from his catch.
Whitefish stocks have declined rapidly throughout much of Michigan’s Great Lakes waters, and the Leland area is no exception. Whitefish harvests out of Leland averaged close to 100,000 lbs annually in the 1980s, but fell precipitously with the introduction of zebra and quagga mussels. From 2011 to 2016 harvests stood at about 20,000 lbs per year, but over the past four years harvests have averaged 10,000 lbs/year, well below the level of economic viability.
If the Fisheries Order 243.21 stands, and trap nets fishing is closed in October as well as November, and traps nets are restricted to waters less than 80 feet in depth, fishing season will effectively be limited to April through mid June.
Q: Do sport fishing interests support the 2020 commercial fishing bills as passed in the Michigan House?
A: Yes. Major sport fishing groups helped write the bills and testified in their support. Michigan’s charter industry, built on salmon fishing, is becoming more and more reliant on abundant lake trout. It may be that the average weekend sport fisherman cares little for “fish politics” but the sport fishing organizations form a powerful lobby that is almost exclusively opposed to any provisions that favor commercial fishing.
State-licensed commercial fishermen believe that if they are permanently excluded from catching valuable species that are now increasing within the lakes (lake trout, yellow perch, walleye) they will in effect become a “one fish” fishery. Whenever and wherever whitefish decline to the point of not being profitable, another commercial fishing port or operation will close due to the lack of opportunity to catch other fish.
If fishermen were allowed through a quota system to a portion of the harvestable surplus of abundant and valuable fish, then the small, but important and valuable, commercial fishing industry could survive.
There are many reasons not to rely entirely on sport fishing to keep a rising fish population in balance. Among them:
- The Great Lakes are vast and inaccessible to small boats. Much of the vast waters of the state are effectively off-limits to any but the most well-equipped and seasoned veterans of Great Lakes waters.
- Even when fish are abundant, it is unrealistic to think that sport fishing alone can reduce stocks that are out of balance. When alewives formed over 95% of the fish biomass of Lake Michigan, fisheries managers offered trawling permits for commercial harvest of these fish for fish meal, thus reducing the overpopulation of alewives. Eliminating Michigan’s commercial fishing industry would not only be a loss of knowledge and heritage, it would be throwing away a tool that can be used to balance fish stocks when inevitable imbalances occur.
- Sport fishermen catch the fish that are most available and the most fun to catch, not necessarily the most ecological valuable species. Sport fishermen also cannot harvest the volumes, or quantities, needed to sometimes effectively reduce fish populations; therefore, they cannot be relied upon to reduce over-abundant fish stocks. Commercial fishermen can be a much better tool to keep fish stocks in balance.
- Scientific research and fish stock assessment is done almost entirely from commercial boats and commercial catch statistics. Managers would not only lose their most valuable management tool, but also their best informed intelligence on how various fish species interact with each other in the lakes.
Q: How will these regulations affect Fishtown and Leland?
A: Because of declining whitefish stocks and rapidly rising lake trout populations, Leland’s commercial fishing operation is already challenged to remain viable. As whitefish have decreased, the quota for fish to be landed locally has been cut to below the threshold of economic viability. Fishtown Preservation has been dedicated to continuing commercial fishing operations out of Leland, because of its unbroken heritage here and to help ensure continuance of this industry.
Lake trout now comprise about 95% of all fish caught in trap nets set for whitefish out of Leland. In other words, every time the Joy returns with 250 pounds of whitefish (about average for recent years), over a ton of lake trout have been returned to the water. Most of these fish survive, but some are damaged by the net and will not live. Current regulations state that all these fish must be thrown back.
Q: What happens next?
A: Late in November 2020, the DNR announced its new Fisheries Order for 2021, in a move that struck commercial fishermen as purely an effort to punish them for failing to support the DNR’s preferred legislation. The DNR also failed to send out applications for re-issuance of licenses before the end of the year, meaning that beginning January 1, there would be no legal non-tribal commercial fishing in the state. The two actions of the DNR prompted a class action suit filed at the end of the year against the Director and Fisheries Chief of the DNR.
Early in January 2021, the DNR sent out the applications for renewal of licenses, but unless a court prevents the adoption of the new Fisheries Order 243.21, commercial fishermen will be forced to abide by rules that will impose real hardship. Most fishermen say the imposition of these rules will put them out of business.
The most significant change will be that the fishing season will be shortened by three months. Currently, nets set in deep water in April are moved to shallow water in June, then moved back to deeper water as the water warms up. The summer fishing season is when the local price for whitefish is high and fish are relatively abundant, so it is critical to any kind of economic viability. The 80-foot depth limitation would mean that there is no point in moving nets back to deep water for the second half of the summer, so operations would cease.
Q: What can be done about this?
A: It is important to remember that, while this is a complex set of problems having to do with ecological upheaval in the lakes and battles over the allocation of available fish among user groups, state regulators in the DNR could choose to work with the remnants of a once vibrant commercial fishing industry to find ways to carry the industry forward into the future. So far, the DNR has chosen to tighten restrictions, focusing all commercial fishing effort on a single species, a fish with a declining population. If whitefish stocks fail, it will be said that the demise of this industry was “inevitable.”
Some ways the DNR could choose to work with the industry have been identified in the proposed senate amendments. They include:
- The DNR Director to allow a certain amount of bycatch (accidental catch) of lake trout and other non-target species.
- Where harvestable surpluses of lake trout, yellow perch, and walleye are identified, the DNR could offer research permits licensed to commercial fishers.
- Research to understand factors leading to decline of whitefish stocks, especially the predator-prey relationships between lake trout and whitefish, is not currently a priority of state biologists. As the mainstay of an important heritage industry, and a valuable food resource, more effort should be given to understanding the factors leading to the widespread decline of whitefish throughout the lakes and look into ways of potentially stocking lake whitefish, as has happened historically with other species with declining populations.
It is important to be mindful of the fact that the fishery in Leland, where the licenses are held by a non-profit organization, may for the short term be able to absorb a series of losses year-to-year and wait for conditions to improve in the fishery. However, all other members of the Michigan Fish Producers Association have nothing to buffer them from business reversals. In many cases, one bad year of red ink will put these small, family-owned operations out of business, and seriously dent the food-chain supply for restaurants, individuals and families who have enjoyed fresh locally caught fish on their tables for generations.