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Fishing for fish

by on August 26, 2011

This is a fascinating Associated Press article which I first saw in the Santa Barbara News Press.  Like most newspapers, the News Press is good producing boring, empty, non-news, you-can-read-it-anywhere articles.  Occasionally, though, the newspaper tells the truth and sometimes there’s an interesting story.

Did you ever think about commercial fishing in Milwaukee?  You might want to become a historian if you are interested in the subject.  “It’s mid-April and the gray-haired fisherman and his gray-haired son are not headed out for just another day of hoisting nets from the depths of Lake Michigan.”  There are fish, but no commercial fishing ventures.  “Today, for the first time since the 1800s, there are no commercial fishing boats operating out of Milwaukee.”

” By 1938, Wisconsin’s commercial fishing operations were motorized and mechanized and generated jobs for more than 2,000 workers. They were dropping enough nets in state waters, mostly in Lake Michigan but some in Lake Superior, as well, to stretch from Milwaukee to the Eastern Seaboard, and back. And those nets were still pulling 14 million pounds of fish out of Lake Michigan a year.”  This was a decrease from the 41 million pounds a year in 1900, but still significant and impressive.

“The decline of the (commercial) fishery going on right now in Lake Michigan and Huron doesn’t have anything to do with overfishing,” says David Lodge, a biologist and Great Lakes expert at the University of Notre Dame.  So what happened?

Changes in the food web that appear to be driven by invasive mussels.  The primary suspect is the quagga mussel, which arrived in the Great Lakes as a stowaway in the ballast tanks of freighters that carried them across the Atlantic. Still a rare find in Lake Michigan until just several years ago, the mollusks mysteriously and suddenly went viral.  Today they smother the bottom of the lake almost from shore to shore, and their numbers are estimated at 900 trillion.  Almost unfathomable, and each “quagga can filter up to a liter of water per day, stripping away the plankton that for thousands of years directly and indirectly sustained the lake’s native fish.”

For fishermen, when there are no fish left their livelihood is gone.  It would be like, for farmers, some invasive worm sucking all the nutrients out of the soil.  When the fishing is gone, the stores who prepare the fish, package the fish, and sell the fish also suffer.  “Jeff Ewig stands in a blue smock behind the counter of Ewig Brothers Fish Company with a sign that says: ‘We are out of smoked chubs for the season. The soonest they would again be available is late next winter, ifwe can find a new supplier.’  Today Ewig and his son hang on to the family fish-smoking wholesale and retail operation any way they can, selling Alaskan halibut, farmed South American salmon, lobster tails, haddock, cod and tilapia, as well as some Great Lakes smoked fish, often from Lake Superior.  But “their specialty used to be Lake Michigan chubs.”  There are no options to sue and no one to blame.

What do the fishermen do?  Dan – the son of a fishermen who has been on the same boat since he was eight, in 1944, and who himself grew up on the boat –  is planning to move his wife and three kids to Alaska in the coming months.  He’s got a boat in Alaska, and after years of boating in Alaska there for several weeks each summer he is ready to make the place home. He says this is the only choice he has because he can catch more fish in one day in Alaska than he can catch all winter off Milwaukee.  “I’m not leaving” Lake Michigan, Dan says. “The lake left me. It’s gone.”

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