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Commercial fishing is critical infrastructure: Will it survive COVID-19?

LANSING — Michigan’s commercial fishing is critical infrastructure during the pandemic, yet some of its practitioners may not survive COVID-19.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer designated commercial fishing as critical to the state’s food supply on April 9, allowing the industry to continue to fish. Yet there’s concern whether fishers will be able to sell their catches.

The state followed federal guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security to make the designation, said James Dexter, the state’s fisheries chief in the Department of Natural Resources..

“Our 13 [commercial] fishers bring to dock about 5 million pounds of fish (per year), which provides a significant number of meals,” Dexter said.

He’s unsurprised the industry is considered critical: “Fish (are) an extremely valuable source of protein for people., It’s an extremely good product. It’s all wild caught fish – a Pure Michigan product. People want a varied diet and fish is important.” In the time of coronavirus, this is a good news-bad news story for commercial fishing. They can fish, but they’re concerned about finding a market.

They’re glad to get out on the water and set their nets, but they’re not sure where they’ll sell the fish they catch, said Amber Petersen.

Petersen is married to a third-generation commercial fisher out of Muskegon whose family has been plying the Great Lakes since 1927. She and her husband also operate a fish processing business and fresh fish market.

In normal years, much of their catch is destined for restaurants along the Lake Michigan coast and in tourist towns in Northern Michigan.

Commercial fishing is tied to the restaurants, Petersen said. Now, with most restaurants in the state closed and the summer tourist season just around the corner, Petersen worries what may happen to the industry and her own family.

“This could be the kind of thing that wipes out people,” she said.

COVID-19 hit in early spring, just as the season started. If it lasts until summer, fishers will be in serious trouble.

The state may consider fish an important part of a varied diet, but variety isn’t what state-licensed fishers bring in from the lakes. Their licenses allow them to keep a single species: lake whitefish, said Petersen. If they catch other commercially valuable species like walleye and lake trout, they must throw them back.

Being restricted to whitefish keeps Michigan fish out of large grocery chains, Petersen said.

She and other fishers would like to get access to grocery chains to sell whitefish, especially with restaurants closed, but large grocers like Meijer and Kroger won’t buy from Michigan fishers because they can offer only whitefish, she said.

Chains want whitefish, but also walleye and lake trout, Petersen said.

Since U.S. grocers can’t get those other species from Michigan fishers, they turn to Canadian Great Lakes commercial fishers. Canadians can fish for walleye and lake trout, in addition to whitefish, so they’ve cornered the market for Great Lakes fish in the major chains, she said.

Dana Serafin, who fishes commercially in Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, said, “Canada has a monopoly on everything.” He sounds exasperated when he thinks about what’s happening in Michigan, especially during the pandemic.

From 80% to 90% of the whitefish he catches stays in Michigan, going to restaurants up north and on the west side of the state, Serafin said. With restaurants closed, he’d like to sell to grocery stores.

He can’t contract with Meijer or Kroger because they want more than just whitefish to sell to the public, he said.

Serafin becomes increasingly frustrated as he talks about the state’s position on commercial fishing.

Michigan plants walleye and lake trout by the millions but commercial fishers can’t keep them when they catch them, he said.

That’s because the sport fishing industry doesn’t want those species caught commercially, Serafin said. “The sport groups allowed the Canadians to have a monopoly.”

But for Serafin, those fish could mean added income to the dwindling numbers of the state’s commercial fishers and processors.

It’s not like the fish planted by the state will stay in Michigan’s waters, Serafin said. “They’ve got tails — they tend to move.”

“I know all them guys in Canada, and they laugh how stupid we are,” Serafin said.

“We started out planting walleyes. Who takes the walleyes? Canada. Who sells them back to us? Canada.

“Canada doesn’t plant walleyes. They think it’s hilarious we’re that stupid to plant them, they catch them and sell them back to us,” he said.

They even label their fish “Pure Michigan, processed in Canada,” Serafin said.

Michigan fishers are convinced that walleye and lake trout are abundant and wouldn’t be negatively impacted by commercial fishing.

Advocates of recreational fishing in Michigan disagree.

“I would tell you as both a sport fishing enthusiast and fisheries biologist, those popular species are fully allocated,” said Bryan Burroughs, the executive director of Trout Unlimited in Michigan.

The state and federal governments carefully monitor and regulate lake trout and walleye numbers in the Great Lakes, he said. While walleye are doing comparatively well in Michigan waters, especially in Saginaw Bay, lake trout still can’t sustain their populations through natural reproduction.

Burroughs said he doesn’t want lake trout added to the species caught by Michigan’s state-licensed commercial fishing operations, and says the state is managing the species well.

The different approach to managing fisheries between Canada and Michigan comes down to economics, he said. “Michigan is making a much more intelligent use of its fisheries.

“The state ranks in the top three in the country for sport fishing, whether you’re talking about dollars spent or numbers of out-of-state people visiting the state to fish,” he said. They inject far more money into the local economy than commercial fishing, he said.

“On average, people fishing on the Great Lakes spend about $225 per day on fishing trip expenditures,” Burroughs said. Recreational anglers can turn 100,000 pounds of walleye into $300,000 of local expenditures.

If Michigan fishers want to diversify their catch to improve their economic situation, they should develop markets for species not currently being caught recreationally or commercially, like drum and burbot, he said.

Petersen worries about rural operations without a large-enough local population to buy their fish while restaurants are closed. Some may not make it, she said.

Before the shutdown, Michigan was considering legislation to raise fees on commercial fishing operations and designate walleye and lake trout as sport fish, she said. That would slam the door on commercial fishers’ hopes of expanding their catch beyond whitefish.

“We’re not loved by the state of Michigan,” she said.

Kurt Williams writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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