Some fish populations in the Great Lakes have recovered dramatically from the devastating pollution of the last century. But the very health of the fishery presents a new set of challenges for people. Who gets to catch the fish? Most states favor sport anglers, but some commercial fishing operations are asking for a bigger share. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Some fish populations in the Great Lakes have recovered dramatically from the
devastating pollution of the last century. But the very health of the fishery presents a
new set of challenges for people. Who gets to catch the fish? Most states favor sport
anglers, but some commercial fishing operations are asking for a bigger share. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
(sound: engine zooms, slows)
Steve Dahl guides his aluminum boat to his gill net, anchored below the waves of Lake
Superior. He fishes out of Knife River, a small town just up the shore from Duluth
Minnesota. A few feet at a time, the net offers up its catch – slender silver herring
caught by the gills.
“The mesh actually has a little bit of flex to it. That’s why I can squeeze them out. One
that’s too big or fat, you have to back it out, so you don’t harm the flesh.”
The openings in the net are just right to catch herring. Too small for lake trout. Dahl
isn’t allowed to catch lake trout anyway. He says they mostly just bounce off the net.
When the net is empty, about 40 herring – each of them about a pound – are lying in a tub
at the bottom of the boat.
Dahl is working hard for these fish. It’s pretty cold, and the wind is gusting.
Dahl says sometimes the current is so strong, he can’t pull the net up out of the water.
Sometimes there are no fish in the net. In the
summer, they move around and they’re hard to find. And of course, he can’t fish when
the lake is frozen.
But he loves this life.
“I get to be outside all the time, my own boss. It’s great fun.”
Steve Dahl sells his catch to the restaurants and fish houses that dot the North Shore of
Lake Superior. He makes his living this way. He says he doesn’t make a lot of money,
but it’s a good life.
Dahl says the money would be better if he were allowed to fish for lake trout. He figures
he’d be able to make several thousand dollars more a year if he could catch even just a
few hundred lake trout.
“That’s all we’re asking for is to be able to supply the local restaurants through the peak
Lake trout were almost wiped out by over-fishing and by the parasitic sea lamprey in the
1960’s and 70’s. The lamprey are under control now, and decades of stocking lake trout
have brought the population back up. People who fish for sport have been catching more
and more lake trout. Last year, they caught about 15,000 of the fish on the Minnesota
side of Lake Superior. But so far the state of Minnesota won’t allow commercial fishers
to go after them. Neither will Michigan, although Wisconsin and Ontario do.
Don Schreiner manages the Lake Superior fishery for Minnesota. He says restoring the
lake trout population is taking a long time. That’s why they don’t want to open it up to
commercial fishing just yet.
“Right now we’re pretty cautious, we’ve just started kinda pulling back on stocking and it
seems a little premature to start thinking about opening the door for commercial
Next year, Minnesota plans to create a new ten-year plan for the fish in its Lake Superior
waters. Don Schreiner says during the planning process, everyone will be able to have
their say. But sport anglers far outnumber the two dozen or so commercial fishermen on
the North Shore. So they’ll need to find allies in their claim on the lake trout.
Paul Bergman is likely to speak up in favor of commercial fishing for lake trout. He
owns the Vanilla Bean Bakery & Café in Two Harbors, Minnesota. He buys herring from
Steve Dahl. He says half his customers order fish, and they love it when it’s locally
“People really do come up here for the native fish on the North Shore, so we’re getting so
many more repeat customers now from the cities. More and more are asking for the fish.”
Bergman puts a sign in the window when he has fresh herring, and he says it pulls people
in. He’d like to be able to do the same with lake trout.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.