‘We’re all going to be gone’: Bills threaten commercial fisheries

Muskegon County

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Three bills in Lansing seek to update commercial fishing rules that were created nearly ninety years ago. 

House Bills 4567, 4568 and 4569 have entered the Ways and Means Committee. They would among other things update the aged rules, which the Department of Natural Resources say no longer align with how the state operates. 

“Any industry that is basing their regulations off of something that was put in place in basically during the Great Depression time frame really limits how that industry is regulated,” Seth Herbst, Aquatic Species and Regulatory Affairs Manager for the Department of Natural Resources said. “Updating this commercial fishing statute is absolutely critical.”

The commercial fishing industry in Michigan has struggled in recent years due to rapid declines in the population of the one fish they are allowed to catch, the lake whitefish. 

Amber Mae Petersen and her husband Eric own and operate the last commercial fishery in West Michigan. Their fish market, The Fish Mongers Wife sells fresh caught smoked whitefish and other fresh fish they’ve had to ship in from as far away as Norway to supplement their income.

“Sixty years ago or so we were allowed to catch more than just the whitefish,” Petersen said. “Right now we are pigeon holed commercial into a one species commercial fishery. What we really need to do is diversify. It’s good for the ecology of the lakes.”

The department disagrees, saying opening up Michigans waters completely to commercial fisherman would be detrimental to other species, namely the lake trout.

“The DNR’s charge is to manage, manage the sustainable use of natural resources for this generation and the next and those to come in the future,” Tom Goniea, Fisheries Biologist and Commercial Fish Specialist for the department said. “You are essentially asking us to choose between two user groups. When the species should be available for the majority.”

In recent history, catching and selling only whitefish hasn’t been an issue. The whitefish populations have drastically declined in the last decade.

In 2009, the DNR reported a biomass catch weight of seven million pounds. In 2018, that number was slashed to two and a half million. 

“2009 in Muskegon was a banner year. I mean it was a really nice year,” Petersen said. “Historically in commercial fishing we say theres seven good years and seven rough years, so if we were looking at good years in 2008, right now we should be ticking up and coming back up on an upcycle from that but we’re not seeing the typical recovery that we have in years past.”

The DNR says invasive species are to blame. Namely Zebra Mussels and Quagga Mussels.

“I think what’s happening in the Great Lakes now is really outside of traditional management perspectives, its a problem from the bottom up,” Goniea said. “The Lakes are looking for an equilibrium. They’re looking to find themselves a new normal with the presence of mussels and what they do to the food chain.”

Not only do these 24-hour filter feeding mussels take away the food source from the whitefish. Fisherman indicate their catch is also being hunted from the top down.

“The department really favors sports fisherman in this state unfortunately, especially by planting more Lake Trout, these fish feed on young Whitefish,” Petersen said. “Less fish means less income which makes our business more shaky, which makes our take home pay of course, unsustainable.”

November is the only month fisheries are forbade from catching the Whitefish. The fish come in to shallower water to breed. Fisherman are hopeful this season enough fish will spawn to fill their smokehouses for the next decade. 

“This is really our last option,” Petersen said. “If we don’t see some legislative change and some policy change happening, you’re not going to have small scale, family commercial fisheries anymore. We’re going to all be gone.”

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