Robert Ruleau


I am a seventh generation commercial fisherman on Lake Michigan. Our family has been fishing Michigan waters since 1826, before Michigan was a state. We’ve weathered through most everything imaginable — from all that nature could throw at us to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources playing Frankenstein with the lakes.

My great, great grandfather Schyuler was one of the great pioneer fishermen and owned all of what is now J.W. Wells State Park in the Upper Peninsula.

Back in the 1980s our company, Ruleau Bros., employed more than 100 people and produced more than 50 million pounds of fish. We have about 15 employees today, due to continuing over-regulation by the DNR, invasive species and having only one fish left to take … the whitefish.

Today, there are only 13 commercial fish companies left in Michigan, not counting Native American commercial fishing.

New proposed legislation will make it harder for my family to make a living off the water that has been in our blood for over 170 years.

My family suffered through the effects of White Pine being clear cut back in the 1800s when sawdust would choke the spawning grounds and rivers, the sea lamprey that sucked the blood out of lake trout and whitefish, invasive alewifes and smelt and, lately, the zebra and quagga mussels that filter the life out of the Great Lakes for a time. All these things eventually “fit” into the system but they take lifetimes. We are just coming around from the mussel invasion and the damage that it did. To have the DNR draw up more regulations is just not necessary.

Again, there are just 13 of us left in the state.

In 1965, Howard Tanner and the Michigan DNR decided to try and turn Michigan Great Lakes into a sport industry and to make that happen, commercial fishing had to go. We saw nearly 2,000 fishing businesses taken away by 1970. This take could not have happened under today’s laws.

Michigan DNR introduced exotic and unnatural species of predator game fish into the system and completely upended its dynamics. It was also, in my opinion, an unconstitutional take — taking from one user and giving to another — mostly for the sake of creating a bloated DNR bureaucracy. This playing with nature has had some very negative impacts and some very untrue realities, most significantly the constant beating of the multi-billion-dollar value of this sport industry.

Seven billion dollars! This is the number constantly used by all sport groups, DNR and every press article about Great Lakes sport fishing for salmon and trout. I’m here to tell you that the “open water” sport fishing industry, the one that has been favored by the Michigan DNR over my commercial fishing industry, is a tiny piece of sport fishing in the state of Michigan. Probably 99 percent of all sport fishing in Michigan is done by mom, dad and the kids in inland lakes, streams, rivers and near shore — not on the open waters of the Great Lakes.

The vocal commercial charter sport fishers and sport groups such as Trout Unlimited have hid behind this fact and used the bloated dollar numbers to endlessly persuade our politicians to always vote in their favor because they “created” so much value. It’s simply not true.

We are of late holding our own but still a shadow of what we once were. We have a new product, “Door County Smoked Whitefish Pate,” that is offered at Whole Foods Market Midwest and we are attempting to get it into Meijer stores soon. This may give a boost back to Ruleau Bros. for the future.

But DNR actions threaten to place the last death stake in my industry, one that is rich in history and provides a wonderful food source to millions of people who don’t catch their own fish. Michigan commercial fishermen are there to see that they can. Don’t give up on us.

About the author: Robert Ruleau is a seventh-generation commercial fisherman based in Stephenson, Mich.

This guest commentary first appeared in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan.