industry still trawling for survival
South Bend Tribune
Published November 19, 2006
LANSING -- Michigan's commercial fishing industry began
sinking in the Great Lakes long ago.
Now the industry has one clear goal -- survival. Invasive
species and viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) have commercial
operators worried there will be no whitefish to catch.
"The Canadian fishermen are able to catch and process
whitefish much cheaper than we can because of the amount
of inland lakes and government subsidies," said John
Gauthier, owner of Gauthier-Spaulding Fish Co. in Rogers
City and a director of the Michigan Fish Producers Association.
"I still get the same price for a pound of whitefish
as my father did in the 1950s."
Ron Thill, owner of Marquette-based Thill Fisheries, said,
"Canadians do dump fish in Michigan. It doesn't affect
me as much as it does the bigger fisheries."
The crown corporations, which are subsidized by the Canadian
government, include Northern Native Fishing Corp., which
helps create and sustain new fisheries in northern Canada,
and Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp., which promotes Canadian
fish in international markets.
Other subsidy programs include pensions and health care
for Canadian workers, and creating a new commercial fishing
industry near Nova Scotia.
In the United States, the Sea Grant program helps coastal
communities, including those on the Great Lakes. The federally
funded operations study rip currents on the Great Lakes,
designate shipwreck zones and promote Michigan's commercial
Among the invasive species of concern is the zebra mussel
that eats the same small organisms that whitefish eat.
Ron Kinnunen, director of the Michigan State University
Extension program in Marquette, said the decline in whitefish
size might be attributed to the decline in the food supply
available to whitefish.
Another problem is VHS -- which causes internal bleeding
in fish's tissue -- entering into the Great Lakes. On
Oct. 24, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service,
a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, temporarily
banned 37 fish species from entering the Great Lakes.
The decline in the state's fishing industry appears to
have begun about 40 years ago.
In 1968, the Department of Natural Resources decided
to promote sport and recreational fishing on the Great
Lakes and limit commercial fishing by creating quotas
on pounds of fish taken from the Great Lakes, said DNR
fisheries biologist Tom Goniea.
The number of commercial fishing operations peaked around
1,500 in the 1960s and sank to 60 in 2006. Only about
30 of them are active and have at least one boat registered
with the DNR.
Gauthier said, "During the '60s, we had a lot of
construction workers that were weekend fisherman. But
after the quotas, a lot of fishermen left because it wasn't
A botulism scare in the late 1960s also called into question
the safety measures used by the fishing industry. Botulism
spores are found naturally in all fish, but the likelihood
of spores increases if the fish aren't refrigerated soon
enough. Kinnunen said the scare started when a buyer left
smoked fish in his car, unrefrigerated, and botulism spores
grew in the fish and made the consumer ill.
Bans were imposed on commercial fishing for lake trout,
salmon and other Michigan sport species during the 1970s.
During the 1980s, the market for carp was eliminated
because of contaminants in the fish. A 2000 court order,
which designated tribal and state waters, lowered fish
quotas and limited or banned gill nets.
The DNR regulates the commercial fishing industry, and
it has no plans for programs to help the commercial fisherman.
"There are no funds for the industry," Goniea
But, to help the industry, Sea Grant has operations in
Tawas, Traverse City, Grand Haven and other shoreline
One Marquette Sea Grant program promotes whitefish on
taste and quality, and is helping create a brand name
and Web site for Michigan commercial fisheries.
That quality assurance program will create guidelines
that include processing fish within 24 hours of catch,
vacuum-freezing fish with plastic sleeves and getting
fillets to market within 24 hours. The goal is to promote
quality and freshness of Great Lakes fish over ones imported.
"I can guarantee that my whitefish makes it to my
market in about a day," Thill said.
The brand name will be introduced in 2007, and the goal
is to have customers recognize the name and logo as Michigan
Kinnunen also is teaching operators to handle fish in
ways that meet food safety laws.
Currently, Great Lakes' commercial fishing boats can
net only whitefish and chubs, except in Saginaw Bay, where
fishing for perch, catfish, carp, sheepshead and quillback
"The minimum for perch size is 8 1/2 inches,"
said Goniea. "There are no limits for carp and sheepshead
The last program the DNR conducted with Michigan's commercial
industry was 2001. The three-year study measured the most
successful depths to catch whitefish.
Gauthier said, "The program helped me a lot. I know
at what depths to set my nets in the spring, summer and
fall. The whitefish moves with the water temperature."