Michigan’s dying commercial fishing industry fears state bills may be the last nail in the coffin

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LANSING – Michigan’s once vibrant commercial fishing industry has grown from thousands of businesses to just 13 full-time fisheries.

And those who remain fear that the legislation of a state Senate committee may be the end of the industry as a whole. That their mom-and-pop style operations would leave the Great Lakes for good and leave the door open only for large investor-type companies to take over the industry.

“What it does is it ultimately suffocates us,” said Amber Peterson, operator of The Fish Monger’s Wife, one of the last remaining commercial fisheries. “It doesn’t even give us the dignity of a quick death.”

Internal Bills 4567, 4568 and 4569 would add new regulations for commercial fishermen – such as providing the Department of Natural Resources with the GPS coordinates of their nets and gear when used in the Great Lakes and requiring that the gear lost or altered are reported.

The main concern with the legislation, the parts of the bills that commercial fishermen say threaten the industry, are the provisions that permanently prevent commercial fishermen from fishing for perch, walleye and lake trout. That would only leave them with whitefish, a fish that they say is dwindling in numbers because it is eaten by lake trout.

Commercial fishermen have had no quotas on lake trout and walleye and only recreational fishermen have been allowed to fish for years. Perch can only be caught in Saginaw Bay. Peterson said commercial fishermen understood that once the numbers of these types of fish were on the rise again, they could take these fish again.

These bills would definitely make these three types of fish inaccessible to commercial fishermen.

It’s all part of an ongoing battle in the Great Lakes between commercial fishing and sport fishing. Similar legislation was introduced in the last session which was not the subject of a committee hearing, as well as competing legislation to allow commercial lake trout fishing. The lake trout fishing bill did not reach the governor’s office, but it was passed by the state Senate before dying in the House chamber.

The DNR is on board with bills favored by recreational sport fishing. After regularly weaving its way through State House, the Senate Natural Resources Committee gathered testimony on the bills for weeks.

The Natural Resources Department said it supported the bills because it said the state’s regulatory code was long overdue for an update.

The most recent regulatory update on commercial fishing was in 1971, said Seth Herbst, director of the Aquatic Species and Regulatory Affairs Unit for the Fisheries Division of MNR.

“Just a way to help bring our state-licensed commercial fishing industry into the modern era, as our law enforcement division currently has significant challenges in enforcing the industry on the basis of our current regulations, ”he said.

That’s because the current fines are so low that they don’t discourage bad behavior – although commercial fishermen say there are few infractions among the small number of fisheries.

In the 1960s, MNR focused on sport fishing in the Great Lakes when salmon were introduced to help control alewife, an invasive species. This, combined with the progress of safer boats on large bodies of water, has led to an increase in recreational fishing. An increase that the State has found profitable.

Sport fishing brings in $ 2.3 billion to the state’s economy, according to a 2019 Michigan United Conservation Clubs report. The money comes from residents and tourists who buy “equipment and clothing, book hotel rooms, buy meals, etc.”

The bill’s sponsor state representative Jim Lilly of the Township of R-Park said the money generated from recreational fishing, especially licenses, has allowed the state to refresh the populations of lake trout, walleye and perch that were once in decline due to invasive species and over fishing.

While supporters of recreational fishing say the bills target them and are not inclusive, Lilly told a committee hearing that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

He pointed to the working groups that took place in 2019 while bills were still in the House, and the conversations that took place during the previous session when similar bills were introduced.

“All stakeholders have had ample opportunity to make their voices heard,” said Lilly.

But commercial fishermen disagree. Peterson said all they wanted was the ability to diversify their catch and that getting rid of their ability to catch lake trout, walleye and perch for good was a “sticking point.”

“We have to resolve this,” she said. “And what we’re asking for is 20 percent … keeping in mind that we’re only talking about fishing in the great lakes. We are not talking about inland lakes. There is no commercial fishery in inland lakes.

Peterson said they don’t feel like they’re asking for much, given the size of the Great Lakes, the resurgence of lake trout and walleye, and the little commercial fishing that remains.

“We are small businesses,” she said. “This idea that we are going to somehow exploit the population is not possible with the current state of the fisheries.”

“It’s very frustrating for us actually because we’re painted as those individuals who 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 variety of local fish in our fish markets, because for most of us that would stay within our community. “

There are other bills in the House and Senate that would update the code and meet the demands of commercial fisheries. HB 4790 and SB 0389 were introduced over a year ago, but have not been heard.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said she knew her legislation wouldn’t go very far, but wanted to provide a counterweight to the restrictions in the other bill.

“It was simply to state that you have to work for all the people who use our natural resources on the Great Lakes and you really have to make sure that you understand that commercial fishing and our Native American tribes provide the fish that 90 percent of the residents. Michigan have access, ”she said.

The bills are now in a Senate committee, chaired by Senator Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and they will be “absolutely” amended, he said. McBroom is organizing working groups on the bills to try to strike a balance between commercial fishing and sport fishing.

“There is absolutely room in the lakes for both,” McBroom said of competing industries. He plans to continue hearings on the bills and hopefully remove them from committee by the end of September.

“I hope that through the discussions, I will be able to find common ground to reach a compromise that preserves the viability of the commercial fishery in this state and the legacy of the commercial fishery while maintaining these sport fishing, something that is successful and dynamic, ”he said.

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