Michigan’s commercial fishing industry fear state bills
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The once vibrant commercial fishing industry in Michigan has dwindled down from thousands of businesses to just 13 full-time fisheries.
And those that are left are afraid legislation in a state Senate committee could be the end of the industry all together, M-Live.com reported. That their mom-and-pop style operations would move out of the Great Lakes for good, and leave the door open only for large, investor-style corporations to take over the industry.
“What it does is it finally just chokes us out,” said Amber Peterson, operator of The Fish Monger’s Wife, one of the remaining commercial fisheries. “It doesn’t even offer us the dignity of a quick death.”
House Bills 4567, 4568, and 4569 would add new regulations for commercial fishers – like providing the Department of Natural Resources with GPS coordinates of their nets and gear when being used in the Great Lakes and require lost or tampered with gear to be reported.
The major concern with the legislation, the parts of the bills that commercial fishers say are industry threatening, are the provisions that permanently prevent commercial fishers from fishing for perch, walleye, and lake trout. This would only leave them whitefish, a fish they say is dwindling in numbers because it’s being eaten by lake trout.
Commercial fishers have had zero quota on lake trout and walleye and only recreational anglers have been allowed to fish from them for years. Perch has only able to be taken in the Saginaw Bay. Peterson said commercial fishers had an understanding that eventually, once the numbers on those types of fish were up again, that they would again be able to take those fish.
These bills would permanently make those three types of fish unavailable to commercial fishers.
This is all part of an ongoing battle in the Great Lakes between commercial fishing and sport fishing. Similar legislation was introduced last session that didn’t get a committee hearing, along with competing legislation to allow for commercial lake trout fishing. The lake trout fishing bill didn’t make it to the governor’s desk but it did pass the state Senate before dying in the House chamber.
The DNR is on board with bills favored by recreational sports fishing. After steadily making their way through the state House, the Senate Natural Resources committee has been taking testimony on the bills for weeks.
The Department of Natural Resources said it supports the bills because it said the state’s regulatory code is long overdue for an update.
The most recent update to commercial fishing regulations was in 1971, said Seth Herbst, Aquatic Species and Regulatory Affairs Unit Manager for DNR’s Fisheries Division.
“Just a way to help bring our state license commercial fishing industry into the modern era because right now our law enforcement division has significant struggles enforcing the industry based on our current regulations,” he said.
That’s because the current fines are so low, it is not a disincentive for bad behavior — though commercial fishers say there are few violations among the small number of fisheries.
Around the 1960s, the DNR switched toward an emphasis on sports fishing in the Great Lakes when salmon were introduced to help control alewife, an invasive species. That, combined with advancements in boats that were safer on big bodies of water, led to an increase in recreational fishing. An increase that the state found profitable.
Sport fishing brings in $2.3 billion to the state economy, according to a 2019 report by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The money comes from residents and tourists purchasing “gear and clothing, booking hotel rooms, buying meals, and more.”
Bill sponsor state Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, said the money generated from recreational fishing, especially licenses, has enabled the state to refresh the lake trout, walleye, and perch populations that were once on the decline due to invasive species and over fishing.
While supporters of recreational fishing say the bills target them and are not inclusive, Lilly said in a committee hearing that “nothing could be further from the truth.”
He pointed to work groups that took place in 2019 while the bills were still in the House, and conversations that occurred during the previous session when similar bills were introduced.
“All stakeholders have been given ample opportunity to have their voices heard,” Lilly said.
But commercial fishers disagree. Peterson said all they want is the ability to diversify their catch, and permanently getting rid of their ability to catch lake trout, walleye and perch is a “sticking point.”
“We have to resolve that,” she said. “And what we’re asking for is 20%…keeping in mind we are only talking about large lake fishing. We’re not talking about inland lakes. There is no inland lake commercial fishery.”
Peterson said they don’t feel they’re asking for a lot, given how large the Great Lakes are, the resurgence of lake trout and walleye and how few commercial fisheries are left.
“We’re small businesses,” she said. “This idea that we’re going to somehow exploit the population is not possible with the current state of the fisheries.”
“It’s very frustrating to us actually because we get painted as these individuals that just want to take, take, take. Greedy. We just want to take and sell all the fish and that’s absolutely not true,” she said. “We just want to put a diversity of local fish in our fish markets because for most of us it would stay within our community.”
There are other bills in the House and Senate that would update the code, and meet the requests of the commercial fisheries. HB 4790 and SB 0389 were introduced more than a year ago, but haven’t been given a hearing.
Bill sponsor Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said she knew her legislation wouldn’t go very far, but wanted to offer a counter to the restrictions of the other bill package.
“It was simply to make a statement that you need to work for all of the people that utilize our natural resources on the Great Lakes and you really need to make sure that you understand that commercial fishing and our Native American tribes supply the fish that 90% of Michigan residents have access to,” she said.
The bills are now in a senate committee, chaired by Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and they will “absolutely” be amended he said. McBroom is holding work groups on the bills to try and find a balance between commercial and sports fishing.
“There is absolutely room in the lakes for both of them,” McBroom said of the competing industries. He plans to continue hearings on the bills and hopefully vote them out of committee by the end of September.
“I’m hoping that through the discussions I’ll be able to find some common ground to reach a compromise that keeps the viability of commercial fishing in this state and the heritage of commercial fishing alive while also keeping these sports fisheries, something that’s successful and vibrant,” he said.