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Great Lakes Article:

Fishing industry still trawling for survival
John Bronz
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 fishing industry.

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 profitable."

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 said.

But, to help the industry, Sea Grant has operations in Tawas, Traverse City, Grand Haven and other shoreline cities.

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 whitefish.

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 are permitted.

"The minimum for perch size is 8 1/2 inches," said Goniea. "There are no limits for carp and sheepshead fishing."

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."

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