Traverse City Record-Eagle

Reflections

August 14, 2011

Fishtown tries to keep fishing alive

LELAND — Leland's Fishtown has weathered much over a century and more.

Winds battered. Waves walloped. Over-fishing, lampreys and armies of other invasive species played havoc with fish and lake. Changing state policies all but dismantled commercial fishing in favor of sport fishing. Federal courts ordered the long-overdue restoration of Indian fishing rights.

Fishtown survived all and remains one of Michigan's few active fishing ports.

Now, with the help of the Fishtown Preservation Society, it navigates the tough seas of a dire ecological era on the Great Lakes. The society is determined to save Fishtown — and commercial fishing.

After all, what would Fishtown be without fishing?

And what would Leland be without Fishtown?

"Leland without Fishtown is not something I would even want to imagine," Fishtown Preservation Society executive director Amanda Holmes said.

But many area people did exactly imagine that in 2006 when fourth-generation Leland commercial fisherman Bill Carlson announced the family was getting out of commercial fishing and that Fishtown was for sale. The news galvanized year-round and summer residents in the Leelanau County village to start the "Save Fishtown" campaign.

For them, Fishtown is more than a collection of buildings and shops, Holmes said.

It's a living place, a working waterfront filled with boats and fishermen, the smells of smokehouse, fresh and smoked fish, with noisy gulls soaring overhead on eternal patrol for scraps.

It is Leland's popular tourist destination, the place where campers, hikers and curious day visitors board the Manitou Isle Transit ferries for North and South Manitou islands on Lake Michigan.

"That's what we have to preserve," Holmes said.

Fishtown's latest life cycle started in 2007 when the preservation group paid $2.7 million for the docks, 11 rustic properties, Carlson's two state commercial fishing licenses, its fishery business and two fishing tugs named Joy and Janice Sue.

The first full year of fishing started in 2010 after the tugs wintered at the Northport Bay Boat Yard to undergo inspections, repairs and maintenance.

Longtime Leland fisherman Alan Priest runs the Janice Sue gill-net/chubfishing operation. Jerry Vanlandschoot, a Munising commercial fisherman, leases the Joy and oversees its operation with the help of the Petersen fishing family of Muskegon. The Joy is used to trap net whitefish.

The Joy lived up to its name during the 2010 season and met its state-license quota of 65,000 pounds — a sign that whitefish have learned to feed and thrive on zebra mussels.

Chub fishing is another story. Catches are extremely low and have been for the last six years. The Janice Sue was licensed to gill net 90,000 pounds but pulled in only 1,400 pounds last year.

Priest blames the thick layers of zebra mussels on the lake's bottom, but he hasn't given up hope on the chubs because they have a habit of disappearing periodically. He said he's seen no evidence of dead chubs in his nets or massive die-offs on the lake.

"I have to believe they're down there somewhere," he said. "I think they've gone higher up for food."

His theory is that the mussels are sifting out food at the bottom and also covering chub spawning beds. Chubs, part of the herring family, are normally a deep-water fish. The state commercial fishing license specifies exactly where the Janice Sue can fish and how deep. Priest has to set his nets at 40 fathoms (240 feet) or deeper. He thinks — and hopes — that the chubs are swimming at higher levels in search of food somewhere between the surface and 240 feet down.

He also holds zebra mussels responsible for the thin layer of green slime he found on his nets last season. The slime is believed to be part of the zebra mussel waste stream and also a contributor to continuing algae presence in this area and the Great Lakes, he said.

"I started commercial fishing when I was 18 in 1970," he said. "After so many years of fishing and catching chubs, this is hard for me to have it go this long."

Priest, who also works at Carlson's Fishery, calls Fishtown his second home.

"It needs to be taken care of," he said.

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