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Great Lakes Article:

New fishing report offers 'invaluable' information on lakes
By Mark Brooky
Grand Haven Tribune

The business of sportfishing on Lake Michigan is on the upswing, so concludes a new report.

The data also shows it is a difficult way to make a living.

The report, called "Michigan's Great Lakes Charter Fishing Industry 2002," was a joint effort of the Michigan Sea Grant College and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network. The groups last studied the industry in 1994.

"The survey is a great asset to all charter boat captains and the ports that they work out of," said Michigan Charter Boat Association President Frank English. "The information is invaluable."

Mark Veurink, captain of a Grand Haven-based charter boat and president of the local Chinook Pier Sportfishing Association, said most captains struggle financially and have second businesses or jobs to get them by.

"It's not a lucrative lifestyle," he said. "You're never going to see a charter captain retire early."

Veurink has been a licensed captain since 1985 and operates Reel Action Charters, one of about 16 charter boats docked at Grand Haven's Municipal Marina. During the off-season, the Spring Lake Township man manufactures fishing lures.

The 2003 season on Lake Michigan was substantially off from years past, Veurink said, and he believes the slump of the general economy is the culprit. He estimates that "walk-ons," individuals or small groups that decide mostly on a whim to go sportfishing aboard a charter boat, was down about 50 percent this year from 2002. In addition, Veurink said a lot of corporations have trimmed such outings from their budgets.

"I would say on the average that most of the guys that do it for a living were down," he said, while also anticipating a rebound next year.

Total charter boat fishing revenue from Michigan's Great Lakes ports is estimated at $10.1 million in 2002, as calculated by Michigan Sea Grant agent Chuck Pistis and Ohio Sea Grant agent Frank Lichtkoppler, the report's authors. That's up from an inflation-adjusted estimate of $6.7 million in the 1994 report.

However, the survey found 468 captains in 2002, down from 543 eight years ago.

"With almost 18 percent of the respondents planning to quit the business in the next five years, a continuing decline in the number of Michigan charter firms may be expected," Pistis stated in the report.

Veurink said membership in the Chinook Pier Sportfishing Association has been fairly steady over the past few years. There are currently 16 members that dock at the city marina, he said, and another 10 docked elsewhere in the area. Members' boats range in size from 22 feet to 48 feet.

Nearly 60 percent of the captains responding to the survey said they planned to increase the number of trips over the next five years. Great Lakes boats made an average of 59.2 fishing trips last year, up from an average of 46 on Lake Michigan in 1994.

August was the most-popular sportfishing month on Lake Michigan, accounting for 36 percent of the 2002 trips. That was followed by July (25 percent), June (15 percent), September (11 percent), May (10 percent), April (2 percent) and October (1 percent).

The most popular fish species sought in the charter trips are salmonids -- salmon, steelhead and lake trout -- accounting for 77 percent of the estimated 27,715 charter trips in 2002.

"The Great Lakes sport fishery has rebounded from its low point in the early 1990s when disease was rampant in salmonids," said Pistis, who works out of a Grand Haven office. "The economic investments in and contributions of the charter fishing industry mirror the recovery in the Great Lakes fishery during that time."

Recreational and commercial fishing is a vital industry in Michigan. Experts say the state's commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes collectively are valued at more than $4 billion a year.

Pistis said that charter fishing customers also make significant contributions to the economies of Michigan's coastal communities. He said clients spent nearly $20 million on food, lodging and other local purchases in Great Lakes ports -- like Grand Haven -- last year.

Michigan is second in the number of charter fishing boats in the Great Lakes. Ohio has the most, 794. New York is third with 305 and Wisconsin is fourth with 258.

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