Storm Over Saginaw Bay
"We're already bleeding, and this will sink us," emails Lakon Williams.
by Madeline Strong Diehl
From the December, 2019 issue
Williams is part owner of the Bay Port Fish Co. in Michigan's Thumb. The company has fished on Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron since 1895, but pending legislation in Lansing would eliminate their most valuable catch, yellow perch. If that bill passes, "We would stop fishing the Bay," she writes. "This would hurt us dramatically and we would have to evaluate everything we do"--including the retail sales that have made her father, Tod, a popular fixture at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.
Tod Williams bought Bay Port Fish in 1978, when he was just twenty-eight, and remains its principal owner (a niece also has some ownership). For the past eight years, he's been keeping a grueling schedule as both fisher and fishmonger. On market days he gets up around 2 a.m. to load his truck with about 3,000 pounds of whitefish, perch, bass, and more, which he sells to more than 100 regular customers.
He can usually be found near the market office from April till the end of December, but this year's early winter weather shut down the fishery at the end of October. He made his last runs to Ann Arbor in November, delivering frozen "winter packages" to customers. But this time, he might not return come spring. Retail sales at Ann Arbor and at two other Michigan markets provide 20 percent of Bay Port's income, but Lakon says that if the legislation passes, they may have to pare down to a wholesale operation.
The biggest question mark is whether they can continue to harvest yellow perch. One of Bay Port's two active boats nets the small, succulent fish in shallow waters in Saginaw Bay, and in November, fillets topped Tod Williams' market price board at $20.95 a pound.
But perch, once abundant, have grown scarcer since invasive mussels disrupted the lake's food chain. This year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources cut sport-fishing quotas in half, and the agency supports a proposed law
that would ban commercial catches in Saginaw Bay.
The lost income would be bad enough, Lakon says. But to avoid catching perch, the company would have to spend $200,000 to buy new nets, which it can't afford. "We may just become a catch-and-sell wholesale fishery if this happens," she writes.
The company's other boat catches whitefish in deep water in Lake Huron--about 200,000 pounds per year, providing 40 percent of the company's income. Seven thousand pounds goes to the U-M, where it's served up in about 30,000 dorm meals every year. But Lakon says other proposed legislation could easily put the deep-water fishery out of operation, too--and, if so, the business would lose everything.
She isn't surprised that the MDNR is putting the squeeze on commercial fisheries. The agency has been "getting rid of [commercial] fisheries for the last sixty years," she writes, citing a DNR website that documents how the agency decided to favor recreational fishing over commercial fisheries when it started divvying up fishing grounds in the late 1960s.
Michigan had hundreds of commercial fisheries then. Now there are only thirteen full-time commercial fisheries in the state, almost all of them family businesses.
Lakon says fishers have been struggling with economic and environmental challenges for more than two decades--indeed, the decision to begin selling fish at farmers' markets grew out of declines in what had been the company's mainstays, carp and catfish. But the latest troubles began around 2010, when commercial fishers asked the DNR for permission to harvest walleye and lake trout--two species that have been reserved for anglers since their populations were deemed "unhealthy" in the 1960s. (The walleye and trout Bay Port sells currently are purchased from Native American fishers, whose treaty rights exempt them from state rules.)
By 2010, Lakon says, DNR stocking programs had led to an overpopulation of walleye, and that predator had begun to decimate the population of yellow perch. Clearer water caused by the invasive mussels also made them easy prey for native cormorants. But, she writes, when the sport fishing industry found out about the commercial fishers' request to target walleye and lake trout, "they flooded the DNR with emails and calls and the DNR ... sided with them."
According to Lakon, "all we want is ten or twenty percent of the quota" that the state allows anglers to harvest each year. "But they're greedy and ... not willing to compromise."
The legislation is currently in committee, but Lakon says if it passes, "we ... might bring a lawsuit for violating our property rights." She has posted a petition on change.org asking the legislature to support commercial fisheries. But, she says, the sport fishing lobby "has a lot more money" and influence, so she has "little hope" of turning the situation around.
Ironically, a few years ago, state officials honored Bay Port as the longest continuously operated business on the Great Lakes.
[Originally published in December, 2019.]
On November 26, 2019, Ed Bolanowski wrote:
Do some research and find out where the money came from to rebuild the walleye in the state of Michigan. I think you will find it was paid for by those "greedy" sports fishermen. Both in license fees and in donations in money and manpower by local fishing clubs.
On November 26, 2019, Jeremy Poirier wrote:
Why do they have an issue reporting their catch daily vs monthly and accurately?
Why do they have an issue reporting gps coordinates of net locations?
When commercial fishing wiped out walleye sportsman rebuilt the fishery, now they want some of the action. If they're so concerned about the perch population why do they continue to net them by the thousands? Sportsmen catch was cut in half a couple years now, but not the commercial fisherman.
Commercial fishing regulations are far outdated as far back as 1920s it's time for a change. If they don't want to report their catch Dailey and accurately how do we know if they're only taking 10 to 20%?
They were over fish the walleye just as they've done in the past just as they're doing to perch. Fisherman bring billions to local economies, what do you commercial fisherman give back?
They should share how they really feel... " a good sport's fishermen is a dead one" is an example posted on Facebook by one of them.
It's time the laws are updated and proper enforcement takes place.
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