Toxic Substances in Great Lakes Fish (Part 7)

  • Advice on how to clean fish and cut away fat to minimize your consumption of certain contaminants. (Image courtesy of Wisconsin Sea Grant)

Today, we wrap up our series, “Swimming Upstream.” Dustin Dwyer traveled all around the Lower Peninsula to gather stories for this series. And today we have a story we wish we didn’t have to do. It’s the story of toxic substances in our fish:

A few weeks ago, Joe Bohr got a surprise. He’s a researcher for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He was looking at some numbers for PCB contamination in carp caught in canals in St. Clair Shores.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a group of chemicals that were used in all kinds of industrial products before they were banned in the 1970s. They’ve been found to cause cancer and other health problems.

Bohr says normally if you’re looking at PCB concentrations in fish, four parts per million is pretty high.

“But I looked at those numbers, and the highest one was over 200 parts per million, and that’s 50 times higher than you normally see.”

It was the highest PCB concentration found in any fish ever in the state of Michigan.

The source is still a bit of a mystery. But there are ongoing tests, and health officials have gone door-to-door to warn people about eating fish from the canals.

Luckily, contamination this severe is rare. But here in Michigan we don’t have the luxury to assume all our fish are safe to eat. We have a history of industrial pollution, and many harmful chemicals find their way to our water, and build up in our fish.

Kory Groetsch, is a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health.
He says before you eat fish, it’s a good idea to check the state’s fish consumption advisory.

“If you follow the fish advisory, we can confidently say that you don’t really face any increased risk. If you’ve been eating more than that, well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to actually have any negative health outcome. But what you can do is you can talk to your doctor.”

But following the fish advisory is easier said than done. The current advisory is about 30 pages of charts and symbols that take you through dozens of types of fish in dozens of waterways.

We can make a couple of generalizations. Usually, smaller fish like perch are safer to eat. Bottom feeders like carp and catfish are more risky. But it can vary quite a bit depending on where the fish comes from, so again, check the advisory.

Michigan’s fish consumption advisory

Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish brochure


Also, the risk from these chemicals isn’t the same for everyone. Women who are, or who could become pregnant are at extra risk. So are small children and people who already have health problems.

And Groetsch says how you prepare the fish can also make a big difference.

“Cutting away belly fat, back fat, taking off the skin, scraping off the grey sort of tissue on that fillet, and then cooking it on a grill or on a rack in some way that lets fat drip away will reduce significantly the amount of these chemicals in that fish.”

But even that doesn’t work for all of the chemicals. Mercury can’t be cut away.

Mercury is also unique in another way. Most of the toxic substances in Michigan’s fish are actually going down, and they have been for years. But mercury is slowly building up in Great Lakes fish.

Mercury can be especially harmful to brain development for babies and children.

Joe Bohr from the DEQ says most of the mercury in our fish comes from coal-burning power plants.

And while there’s been a lot of talk about alternatives, the reality is coal power doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

So if you still hope to be eating Michigan fish 50 years from now, unless there’s a dramatic change, Bohr says the mercury numbers won’t be good.

“I would say it be a scary number, a number where you wouldn’t want to eat the fish, right?”

Dustin: “At all.”


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Fishing for Science (Part 6)

  • A DNR researcher working on the annual fish survey on Lake St. Clair. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

This week, we’ve been hearing stories about fish, for our series “Swimming Upstream.” For today’s story, Dustin Dwyer paid a visit to some researchers with the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR tracks fish populations at sites around the state. Dustin went aboard with the team on Lake St. Clair, and sent us this report:


(audio postcard being transcribed – please check back)

The Mind of a Fish (Part 5)

  • Charter boat captain Ed Patnode. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

All this week, Dustin Dwyer has been bringing us fish stories from around the state. And for today’s story, Dustin wanted to get into the mind of a fish. So, he met up with a charter boat captain on Saginaw Bay:

There’s no evidence that fish understand irony. But if they did, they might find irony in the fact that the people who best understand them are the people who get paid to kill them – or at least injure their lips slightly.

And perhaps no one I’ve met understands fish better than Ed Patnode. He’s so good at fishing, I saw him catch one by accident. I climbed aboard his boat, and a few minutes later a 14 inch small mouth bass is hanging off a hook he accidentally left laying over the side of the boat.

“I didn’t really catch that. He was on the line.” (laughs)

Ed’s been fishing all his life and he can tell you things only a fisherman would know – a fish’s favorite color, for example, it seems to be pink.

“It’s crazy isn’t it? It’s just nuts. But they love it.”

Pink and also green. And sometimes chartreuse or orange. Ed says out of the thousands of colors of lures they sell in catalogues, he only keeps a few on his boat. It’s a charter boat he ties up in Linwood, a small town on Saginaw Bay that advertises itself as Michigan’s Walleye Capitol.

Ed also does salmon fishing charters out of Manistee in the fall.

He decided to start running a charter boat about six years ago. Back then, he used to go fishing every weekend with a group of friends.

“It got to be expensive each weekend going. And so we were just trying to see ‘Hey, how can we cut our losses.’ It was really, really how do we get out there and get other people to help us pay?” (laughs)

And with a lifetime of experience, maybe even obsession, with catching fish, he certainly knew enough to do it.

More about Captain Ed

More about Jeff Godi


But as much as he knows about fish, there’s still more he wishes he could know.

“You know we’d be rich if we could tap into the mind of a fish, just get that fish to talk and tell us why do you like pink, or can you tell us what days you’re going to bite pink on and what other factors are influencing your decision to bite this pink lure today.”

One thing that helps is talking to other fishermen.

“Hey Jeff!”

And here in Linwood, there are a number of charter boat captains who are surprisingly helpful to each other. As I chat with Ed, he calls over Jeff Godi, who owns a charter boat called the Michigan-X. Jeff’s a lifetime fisherman too. So I ask him, what’s the big appeal of trying to figure out a creature that’s so hard to figure out?

“I realized as a kid that I just love to do these things. It hasn’t gotten old. You know, I guess that’s always the thought in the back of your mind. But there’s always variety, you know, different weather conditions, different people on your boat, different people to talk to.”

He says he’s had everyone from old World War II vets to teenagers out fishing on his boat. Jeff tells me his job can be as much about figuring out people as it is about figuring out fish.

But … let’s not try to get too deep here. Fishing is also just a lot of fun. And Ed can hardly hold himself back. Before too long, he tracks down a first mate, fires up the engine, and we go out to catch some walleye.

At first it’s slow, no bites. But to a charter boat captain, the idea of not catching fish just never enters the picture. Ed changes lures, he changes depths, he changes the speed of his boat. And soon enough he has me reeling in a walleye.

“Keep reeling, keep reeling … he’s in the boat!”

Ed gives me a high five. In the excitement of the moment, I forget to check the color of the lure.

But I bet it was pink.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Next time, we’ll tag along with researchers as they do their annual fish survey on Lake St. Clair. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Fending Off Sturgeon Poachers (Part 4)

  • A juvenile lake sturgeon. (Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott)

This week, we’re focusing on fish for our series Swimming Upstream. And today, Dustin Dwyer has a story about one of the most fascinating fish in the Great Lakes. Sturgeon have been around for more than 100 million years. Each fish can live more than a hundred years, weigh more than a hundred pounds and stretch eight or nine feet long. But sturgeon have also been the target of overfishing and poaching. Dustin caught up with one group in northern Michigan that’s trying to save them:

So about a month or two ago, I was sitting along the bank of the Black River, way up near Onaway. And I was next to Jesse Hide, who has lived in this area all his life, and watched sturgeon all his life. We were keeping an eye out for sturgeon heading up the river to spawn.

“There’s one coming up right there … he’s coming back down now.”

The long, spear-like fish occasionally poke their heads out of the water, like a submarine coming to the surface.

We’re sitting right next to a deep pool where Jesse says the sturgeon like to spawn. It’s not really in full swing yet. If it was, you could tell.

“The males, if you think about it, they’re like a torpedo and they’ll curl to where they’re like the shape of a banana, and they’re really, really quick sideways movement and it’s like a thumping, (imitates noise) like that.”

Hide says it’s so violent, you can feel it through the ground.

Also, get this, if you come across a sturgeon, you can pet it, and it doesn’t seem to mind.

“If you grab a tail, they’ll freak out. They will. They’ll take right off and make a big ruckus, but when you’re just touching them and stuff, it don’t bug ‘em.”

But Hide says that’s also part of the problem. These water giants are a little too gentle. And in the shallow waters of the Black River where they spawn, they’re incredibly vulnerable. Hide has seen evidence of poaching.

“One had been killed and whoever had killed the fish had tied it up. And we found the fish before they actually had a chance to come back and get it.”


The survival of sturgeon is pretty important to Hide and his whole family. His mom founded the first and only Michigan chapter of a group called Sturgeon for Tomorrow.

Every year, the group rounds up volunteers to sit on the bank of the Black River, to guard this area as the sturgeon swim here to spawn.

For many volunteers, it’s a chance to see one of the Great Lakes’ most awe-inspiring fish.

“It’s a unique fish because it’s a prehistoric animal, you know.”

Jack McAfee is one of the volunteers on guard.

“And I can’t believe that people would poach them and come out here in the river when they’re spawning and catch them and things like that. But this is the reason the guard is here.”

Ann Feldhauser coordinates the volunteers for this river guard. She says sturgeon are extremely valuable because of their eggs.

“And a female sturgeon if it reaches a hundred pounds or more can produce gallons of eggs which can then be processed and sold on the black market as caviar.”

There was a time when sturgeon were pulled out of the Black Lake by the hundreds. Most of it was legal, but there was some poaching too.

Now, though, among the volunteers I’ve talked to, no one has ever even seen a poacher. No one here has to pack a pistol or be ready to fight. They discourage poaching just by being here.

And sturgeon are making a comeback.

But it can take sturgeon at least 15 years to reach reproductive age, and even then they don’t spawn every year.

So it’s a slow process.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Tomorrow, Dustin tries to understand the mind of a fish. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A Dam Problem (Part 3)

  • Chris Pierce works to remove a dam on the Manistee River. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

All this week, we’re focusing on stories about fish for our series, “Swimming Upstream.” Dustin Dwyer traveled all around the Lower Peninsula for the series, and for today’s story, he went to the site of a former trout farm along the headwaters of the Manistee River, near Grayling. Dustin went to learn about the complex world of dam removal:

The Flowing Well trout farm was built half a century ago. Dotted along the river here are a number of little dams, each one only 4 or 5 feet high, built out of simple wood planks. But if you’re a fish, this might as well be the Hoover.

“You cannot swim from down there to up there. You cannot access the miles and miles of river that we have upstream of here because the dam blocks fish passage.”

Mark Tonello is a fish biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says dams like the one we’re standing next to give fish less space to feed and less space to spawn. Dams also warm the water, which makes it harder for fish to survive.

Over the past decade or so, people have started to take this dam issue more seriously, and there’s a big push to get rid of old dams.

But the work can be surprisingly tedious.

One group that’s taken up the cause is the Conservation Resource Alliance.

Chris Pierce is a biologist with the CRA. I look on as he and another biologist carefully remove a single wooden plank from the dam.

“You really want to remove the impoundments and the boards, or whatever type of structure is holding the water back, as slow as possible.”

Dustin: “That’s really not as exciting. Dynamite would be much more fun.” (both laugh)

But Pierce says a quick, explosive demolition would release a lot of sediment. A lot of times in Michigan, that sediment holds some pretty nasty toxins.

This one board is all the crew will remove for the day.

(chainsaw sound)


The crew also chops up logs downstream so they won’t jam up once the river returns to its full flow. It’s just one of the many mind-numbing details involved in dam removal.

But so far, we’ve just been talking about the science of dam removal. There’s a whole other side to dam removal where things get REALLY complex.

If a dam is in an urban area, removal changes how people use the water – take away a dam below a pond, and the pond goes too, along with all the boating fun.

Rick Westerhoff is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s the point person for another dam removal project in Traverse City, along the Boardman River. Compared to the Boardman removal, this Flowing Well project is a breeze.

“There’s not many people out here. Still important, but there’s just not the issues related to – you don’t have hydro-power, you don’t have community involvement, you don’t have road-stream crossings, you don’t have potential flooding issues.”

The Boardman River project may well be the largest in the state’s history. It could also cost 20 million dollars.

And that’s another thing – dam removal is never cheap.

Amy Beyer is head of the Conservation Resource Alliance. She says even the Flowing Well project will cost a million.

“People are shocked when they find out the price tag and the time frame that it takes to remove some of these dams. And we’re learning that it really can be a really large effort to do it right, to remove dams.”

There are hundreds of aging dams in Michigan. Removing them is good for fish. It can be good for humans, in case the dams start crumbling away.

But the work is far from easy.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear about a fish that’s been around since before the age of dinosaurs… and we’ll hear about the people who camp out to protect the fish from poachers. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Fish Monger’s Wife (Part 2)

  • The Petersens sell fresh whitefish filets at the Muskegon Farmer's Market. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

Today we continue our series, Swimming Upstream. Dustin Dwyer took a road trip around the lower peninsula, to bring us stories about fish. Yesterday we heard about the Petersens. They’re one of the few remaining non-tribal commercial fishing families in the state.

Today Dustin tells the story of the Fish Mongers Wife:

It’s a grey day at the Muskegon Farmer’s market, but Amber Mae Petersen is selling the heck out of some fresh Michigan whitefish.

“We’re based here in Muskegon, my husband’s family has been commercial fishing here for 75 years. So we sell what we catch.”

The vacuum-sealed bags of whitefish filets, and packages of smoked whitefish are disappearing quickly. Petersen’s husband Eric stands next to her, packing the fish in ice and wrapping it in old copies of the Muskegon Chronicle.

“It’s the only way to do it.”

People who love to eat local fish always seem to find a way to get it, but sometimes it’s not easy.

Melissa Frey had a hookup better than most of us – her husband has known the Petersens all his life. So she could drive over to the dock to get some fish.

“Occasionally we’d go down there and get a treat, but this is exciting.”

Dustin: “But now you get it more often?”

“Oh my gosh, every week. Fish tacos, fish on the grill. We love that. We’re absolute whitefish fans.”

The Petersen’s have been pulling whitefish out of the waters near Muskegon for eight decades. But this Farmer’s Market stand marks the first time the family has ever had a retail operation.

Talking to Eric, you can see why there was a reluctance. The family has distributors it trusts. Going through them is simple and it pays the bills.

So he says when Amber Mae pitched the idea of selling at the farmer’s market, it took some convincing.

“I said go ahead, but I don’t want anything to do with it, you know, because I’m not really a people person. But I got into it you know, and came with her a couple of times and everybody already knew who I was, so it kinda made me feel a little bit better about working with her, and so I come every Saturday with her.”

Dustin: “She roped you in…”

“Yeah, she did.”


Amber Mae also won Eric over on the name for the new business. That quirky and catchy name is now splashed on a board above their market stall: the Fish Monger’s Wife, LLC.

She can afford to gloat a bit because, well, the Fish Monger’s Wife has been a huge hit.

” It just took off. The response from the community was absolutely amazing. People were excited that we were here. We actually sold out our first Saturday within an hour and a half I think it was. It was just crazy.”

But success brings its own challenges.

Amber Mae says one of her big questions right now is how big can this business really get? At the size they’re at now, they’re debt free and all the fish gets cleaned and filleted by hand.

“You know a filet machine used is $30,000. And if we had a filet machine, that would allow us to take and look at doing larger quantities, which would allow us to expand into restaurants and things like that … so, you know, when you’re running a business and you’re saying okay do we really want to do a business loan or not, it becomes complicated.”

Complications like that help explain why there aren’t more people clamoring to get in the fish business. And why people like me have trouble finding fresh local fish at the store.

But the Petersens are making a go of it. The Fish Monger’s Wife is still a pretty small part of the entire Petersen family fishing operation, but it is opening a new door and a new way for the rest of us to enjoy Michigan fish.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Next time, Dustin visits the headwaters of the Manistee River. We’ll hear how removing dams can be good for fish… but it can also be a nightmare.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Shrinking Commercial Fishing Industry

Today we begin a series called: “Swimming Upstream.” It’s about one of Michigan’s most valuable natural resources: fish. These slimy, scaly water dwellers contribute to the ecology of the Great Lakes, our economy, and, of course, our dinner plate.

Reporter Dustin Dwyer has traveled all over the lower peninsula to gather these fish stories for us, and he starts with a simple question: why can it sometimes be so difficult to buy fresh fish caught in Michigan?

The short answer to that question is: Michigan’s commercial fishing industry is pretty small. Other than tribal fisherman, only about 50 people hold commercial fishing licenses in the state.

Bill Petersen estimates that the number used to be a thousand.

Petersen is a third generation commercial fisherman in Muskegon. I met him on a concrete dock, tucked behind a little house near where Muskegon Lake meets Lake Michigan. It’s not an easy place to find.

“Not too many people even know about us down here.”

Dustin: “You don’t have a sign out.”

“We don’t advertise. Sometimes you’re better off that way.” (laughs)

The business seems to be getting by fine without it. Bill’s grandfather started Petersen’s Fisheries in 1927. Bill started young.

“Well I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been working 53 years.”

In that time, he’s seen several fishermen go out of business just in Muskegon. He puts most of the blame on regulation. Starting in the ‘60s, the state put in rules to protect fish populations in the lake. And now the state doesn’t issue any new commercial fishing licenses. Petersen says the rules have definitely helped the fish. But the industry is a shadow of what it once was.

“Well, there’s only two commercial fishermen on this side of the state from here in Muskegon to the Indiana border. Got the whole lake and two fishermen, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Dustin: It’s good business for you, though) Good for us, yeah, but the fish are just back to back. They’re thick.”

As we talk, the boat chugs in with the day’s catch.

(sound of boat coming in)

The catch on this particular day isn’t that great – maybe 1,200 pounds of fish in all. They’re packed in green plastic tubs full of ice.

The crew hauls the tubs up to the dock. If these guys are lucky, they’ll get out of here after a 14 hour work day.

And the profit from that work, well, it can vary.

“You put in long hours and sometimes it’s low pay. So you either gotta like it, or be crazy, one of the two.”

Dustin: “Well, which are you?”

“Take your pick.” (laughs)

At least, if he’s crazy, he’s crazy like a fox. The Petersens have managed to keep a fishing business going in Michigan for about 80 years now, while hundreds of other fishermen went under.


But for folks who just want to buy fresh, local Michigan whitefish, there’s a downside: to stay in business, the Petersens stick with just a few trusted distributors. And once the fish gets loaded up on a truck, those distributors send almost all of it to Chicago or New York. From there, the fish gets hard to track.

Dustin: “If someone’s listening to this radio piece, how would they know if they’re eating a Petersen’s Fisheries fish?”

“They wouldn’t. They would never know. There’s no way that you know where the fish comes from.”

But, that’s actually not entirely true. There is one way to know for sure that you’re getting a fish from the Petersen family. And that is our story for tomorrow.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

And while we have Dustin tracking the Petersen family, we want to know your favorite places to get Michigan fish. You can find our discussion on our Facebook page. Just search for The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.