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Swimming Upstream: The shrinking commercial fishing industry (part 1)

Left to right: Walleye, Dustin Dwyer.
Image by Josh Leo/Rick Treur
Left to right: Walleye, Dustin Dwyer.

Today we begin a series called Swimming Upstream. It's about one of Michigan's most valuable natural resources: fish. These slimy, scaly water dwellers contribute to the ecology of the Great Lakes, our economy, and, of course, our dinner plate.

Reporter Dustin Dwyer has traveled all over the lower peninsula to gather these fish stories for us, and he starts with a simple question: why can it sometimes be so difficult to buy fresh fish caught in Michigan? 

Here's Dustin's story:

The short answer to that question is: Michigan's commercial fishing industry is pretty small. Other than tribal fisherman, only about 50 people hold commercial fishing licenses in the state.

Bill Petersen estimates that the number used to be a thousand.

Petersen is a third generation commercial fisherman in Muskegon. I met him on a concrete dock, tucked behind a little house near where Muskegon Lake meets Lake Michigan. It's not an easy place to find.

“Not too many people even know about us down here.”
Dustin: “You don't have a sign out.”
“We don't advertise. Sometimes you're better off that way.” (laughs)

The business seems to be getting by fine without it. Bill's grandfather started Petersen's Fisheries in 1927. Bill started young.

“Well, I'm 62 years old, and I've been working 53 years.”

In that time, he's seen several fishermen go out of business just in Muskegon. He puts most of the blame on regulation. Starting in the ‘60s, the state put in rules to protect fish populations in the lake. And now the state doesn't issue any new commercial fishing licenses. Petersen says the rules have definitely helped the fish. But the industry is a shadow of what it once was.

"Well, there's only two commercial fishermen on this side of the state from here in Muskegon to the Indiana border. Got the whole lake and two fishermen, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (Dustin: 'It's good business for you, though!') Good for us, yeah, but the fish are just back to back. They're thick."

As we talk, the boat chugs in with the day's catch.

The catch on this particular day isn't that great – maybe 1,200 pounds of fish in all. They're packed in green plastic tubs full of ice.

The crew hauls the tubs up to the dock. If these guys are lucky, they'll get out of here after a 14 hour work day.

And the profit from that work, well, it can vary.

“You put in long hours and sometimes it's low pay. So you either gotta like it, or be crazy, one of the two.”
Dustin: “Well, which are you?”
“Take your pick.” (laughs)

At least, if he's crazy, he's crazy like a fox. The Petersens have managed to keep a fishing business going in Michigan for about 80 years now, while hundreds of other fishermen went under.

But for folks who just want to buy fresh, local Michigan whitefish, there's a downside: to stay in business, the Petersens stick with just a few trusted distributors. And once the fish gets loaded up on a truck, those distributors send almost all of it to Chicago or New York. From there, the fish gets hard to track.

Dustin: "If someone's listening to this radio piece, how would they know if they're eating a Petersen's Fisheries fish?"
“They wouldn't. They would never know. There's no way that you know where the fish comes from.”

But, that's actually not entirely true. There is one way to know for sure that you're getting a fish from the Petersen family. And that is our story for tomorrow.

-Dustin Dwyer for The Environment Report

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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