LELAND — Commercial fisherman across the state see three bills moving through the Michigan legislature as the beginning of the end of their industry, while those who support the bills say it was time for an update in the rules.
Bills 4567-4569, recently approved by the state House, would continue a ban on commercial game fish that started in the 1960s, including on yellow perch, walleye and lake trout. They also aim to increase regulations on commercial fishing in the state and would increase fees for commercial licenses.
Commercial fishers say the bills would limit their ability to support themselves.
Nels Carlson, co-owner of Carlson’s Fishery in Fishtown, said the driving force behind the legislation is economics because sport fishing brings in more money than commercial fishing. Studies have shown that sport fishing is a $3 to $4 billion industry. But no similar studies have looked at the economic impact of commercial fishing in the state, Carlson said.
“The state does not have any concrete evidence ... because they don’t look for it,” Carlson said. “While this bill may not stop commercial fishing, every little bit makes it harder to make a living at it.”
The bills are sponsored by Reps. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, and Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann.
O’Malley said the biggest impetus behind the bills is that they update and standardize the fishing rules and regulations in the state, something that hasn’t been done in 50 years. That’s important as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources negotiates its tribal fisheries compact this year, he said.
“It was time to update them,” O’Malley said.
The increase in fees proposed for commercial fishermen is money that will help manage fisheries, O’Malley said.
The bills are now headed for the Senate, where they could be amended, he said.
“There’s a long way to go before these bill are finished,” he said.
Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, said the primary purpose of the bills is to have more control over what is commercially taken out of the Great Lakes. They also signal a demise in the commercial fishing industry in the state.
“All this will have a serious impact on what we can and cannot do,” Holmes said.
The commercial fishing industry has been pushing another group of bills that would legalize commercial fishing of game species subject to an annual quota — an approach that would allow the capture of 10 to 20 percent of the total population.
The Senate bills are sponsored by Sens. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township, and Curtis VanderWall, R-Ludington. The House sponsors include Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette.
Fishtown owns two commercial fishing licenses and two fishing vessels — the Joy and the Janice Sue — that operate out of Carlson’s Fishery.
The Joy is licensed to catch whitefish only, while the Janice Sue can catch chub, a fish that has declined over the last couple decades. Now the rehabilitated trout population is pushing out the whitefish, Holmes said.
“The waters off Leland Harbor have been overtaken by lake trout, but we’re not allowed to catch lake trout,” Holmes said.
Amber Mae Petersen, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Fish Producers Association, says the bills would permanently ban commercial fishing for any fish listed in the game fish laws.
“There would never be an option, period,” said Petersen, whose husband fishes commercially. She also runs the Fish Monger’s Wife in Muskegon.
“That’s truly what the concern is ... All these bills do is eliminate commercial fishing.”
The bills have support from conservation groups and sport fishing organizations like the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
“Our goal is to support and protect sport fishers and keep game fish out of the hands of commercial fishers,” said Nick Green, the MUCC public information officer. “We are the center of conservation efforts, and commercial fishing pales in comparison to what recreational angler value is.”
The Holland-based Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fisherman’s Association also supports the bills. Keeping the restrictions outweighs the loss of revenue for commercial fishers, said Dennis Eade, chair of the association.
“Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the state, and recreational fishing brings over 300,000 out-of-state fishermen to fish the rivers, lakes and streams in Michigan,” Eade said. “Recreational fishing represents $4.2 billion for Michigan alone. Commercial fishing is $5 million, 13 families that actively fish and only 51 licenses that are available.”
Eade says that sport fishers would be hurt by commercial game fishing.
In addition to the economic impact, recreational fishers say they worry about the impact of commercial fishing on conservation efforts. Lake trout in particular have been badly affected by invasive species and overfishing, according to Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited in DeWitt.
“Lake trout were basically wiped out of Lake Michigan and Huron, and they were brought back by a federal program,” Burroughs said. “After about 50 years of trying to restore lake trout, we’re seeing the first positive signs of some success, but they are not yet a self-sustaining population.”
Burroughs says opening up game fish to commercial fishers would take that resource away from sport anglers.
Carlson says there could be a balance between sport and commercial fishing in the state.
“But it seems like the sport fishing industry won’t be happy until there’s no commercial fishing on the Great Lakes,” Carlson said.
This story was updated to correct a quote from Nick Green.