Whitefish woes grow

Record-Eagle/Tessa LightySmoked whitefish at Burritt’s in Traverse City. Commercial whitefish catches are down this year in Grand Traverse Bay and near Leland.

TRAVERSE CITY — Commercial fishermen caught fewer whitefish around the northwest lower peninsula this year, and at least one is wondering if fishing the area is worth the effort.

Joel Petersen said he fishes out of Leland on the boat for his family business, Petersen’s Fisheries. He has fished there since 2009 and has seen a steady decline in catches nearly every year since.

Peterson said he caught about 4,000 pounds of whitefish in 2016, compared to around 12,000 pounds in 2015. But he caught plenty of other fish. He and his crew would return to the four trap nets they set to find them filled with 3,000 pounds of lake trout.

As a state-licensed commercial fisherman Petersen can only keep whitefish, which he sells to wholesalers, so the lousy payday for 150 pounds of whitefish per net makes it hard to keep a crew, he said.

“It’s depressing, you know, when you go out there and all you pull up is a net full of trout and you’ve got to throw them away,” he said. “Morale doesn’t hold up too long.”

Others didn’t fare much better.

Cindi John and husband Ed own tribal-licensed Treaty Fish Company in Peshawbestown. The two took 75 percent fewer whitefish out of Grand Traverse Bay — Ed said they’d bring in 400-500 pounds per trip in 2015, but Cindi said they barely took 100 pounds per trip this year. However, their operation also set fewer nets this year.

Cindi serves on the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians’ Natural Resources Committee, and said the tribe’s commercial fishermen were all reporting lower catches this year.

Department of Natural Resources Lake Michigan Basin Fisheries Coordinator Jay Wesley said whitefish are dwindling because invasive zebra and quagga mussels are devouring what young whitefish need to live.

“We think we still have enough spawning biomass out there, it’s just that they’re not surviving to recruit into the fishery,” he said.

Dave Caroffino, DNR Great Lakes Biologist for the Tribal Coordination Unit, said a whitefish population boom around 15 years ago makes the current situation look even worse. But there are spots that still see good juvenile survival rates — Wisconsin’s Green Bay being one.

Lake Michigan’s changing food web resembles Lake Huron’s, only several years later, Caroffino said.

“It’s a fundamental shift in the ecology of the lakes,” he said.

Other factors contribute to whitefish survival rates, Caroffino said. They lay eggs in shallow reefs in the fall, so good ice cover protects their spawn. Warm waters in the spring foster a plankton bloom that provides food for the hatchlings, and the young eat mayfly and midge larvae.

Petersen said he believes lake trout are eating whitefish young, and he thinks there are currently too many lake trout in northern Lake Michigan.

But Cindi said she and Ed are grateful for the lake trout, which they caught and sold in good numbers with help from their sons and daughter. Their customers were buying these natural predators, which are gobbling up another invasive species.

“Fortunately, because of gobies providing lake trout all of its nutrients, they’ve become a very good fish to eat, and fortunately for us it’s sustained us,” she said

The whitefish situation varies from port to port. Petersen said he does much better near Muskegon, where the 26-year commercial fishing veteran’s business is based. There, he caught up to 8,000 pounds of whitefish — and little to no lake trout — per net in the spring and fall, better than in 2015.

The difference is enough that Petersen said he considered whether each run out of Leland would be his last. He’ll stay as long as he can find a crew.

Petersen’s wife Meggen said she’s pushing for a regulatory change that would allow her husband to keep and sell some of his lake trout bycatch.

Joel Petersen said his whitefish are fetching lower prices, making the situation in Leland worse. A Russian embargo on Canadian fish imports created a big supply of these freshwater fish.

Caroffino said dressed Lake Michigan whitefish fetched about $1.75 per pound at the end of October and start of November, when a spawning closure temporarily stopped state and tribal commercial operations. Last year’s average was $2.10 per pound. Along with Canadian fish, commercial operations did well near Wisconsin’s Door County this fall.

Ed John said his whitefish brought good prices, although his business no longer supplies wholesalers. Instead they supply a restaurant, smokehouse and their farm market stand in Traverse City.

Cindi John said she’s encouraged by all the four-pound fish they caught near the bay’s west shore, meaning these fish are surviving the gauntlet of challenges they face and reaching adulthood.

Petersen said he also caught small fish near South Manitou Island; he must throw back any fish under 17 inches.

Commercial fishermen like the Johns and Petersen are facing an uncertain future for whitefish, but Petersen and Cindi John both agreed the species can adapt. Petersen has seen plenty of changes in the fish and their habitat, and Cindi said her husband has noticed how their diets have shifted since 1982, when he began fishing. She’s in awe of how resilient these fish can be.

Caroffino agreed that whitefish can adjust to changes. It’s tempting for commercial fishermen to believe whitefish populations are in crisis mode, but he sees zero chance that they will vanish from Lake Michigan.

“This native species is going to persist, it’s just a matter of at what level,” he said.

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