Gloves Come Off In Fight Over Commercial Fishing In Michigan

Jan 5, 2021

Fishtown in Leland is still a working waterfront with one state-licensed fisherman based in this harbor.
Credit Peter Payette / Interlochen Public Radio

The few commercial fishing businesses that remain in Michigan are suing the state’s Department of Natural Resources over changes to industry rules. 

They say the new provisions will make commercial fishing all but impossible. The lawsuit, filed by the Michigan Fish Producers Association, claims the actions of the state threaten to deprive its members and their employees of their livelihoods.

“Here in Leland, you can’t fish,” says Joel Petersen, the last state-licensed fishermen working out of Fishtown. “We’re done.”

Michigan’s DNR director Dan Eichinger wrote the order late last year. It would prohibit fishing in water deeper than 80 feet. Petersen says they can’t catch fish at those depths except for a couple weeks in the spring. 

The order would also close the whitefish season for October in Lake Michigan, a month that can be lucrative. 

“That’s when we catch most fish,” says Robert Ruleau III, of Ruleau Bros. Inc., a seventh-generation fisherman in Menominee. 

The action follows years of wrangling in the Michigan Legislature over attempts to rewrite the law for commercial fishing--which dates back to 1929. Everyone agrees the existing statute is arcane but a key disagreement is about rules for fish like walleye and lake trout. The DNR and sport fishing groups want the law to limit commercial fishing to whitefish. The commercial fishers say they need more diversity to survive.

“Whitefish populations down” says Joel Petersen. “That’s why we were asking for a little bit of help from the DNR by letting us take a few trout.”

The DNR says without new legislation, the state will adhere strictly to the existing law as best as it can. According to the DNR, that means it has no authority to continue to allow fishing in water deeper than 80 feet or fishing in October. Communications from the DNR make it clear that the order is a result of the failure of the legislature to update the statutes.

Senator Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah) attempted to draft compromise legislation this summer but the effort ended in a four minute hearing in December. A representative from the DNR appeared to say the agency would not support any of more than 100 amendments McBroom had offered. 

“There’s zero support for a single amendment that I suggested?” asked McBroom.

The DNR’s legislative liaison Craig Burnett said the agency would need more time to evaluate the proposals.

The DNR declined to comment on the lawsuit. Critics say the order is punishment for the industry fighting the agency’s legislative demands.

“When you look at the facts, it’s like retaliation,” says Dennis VanLandschoot, president of VanLandschoot and Son’s Fishery in Munising. “You didn’t support our bill, so we’re going to do this to you.”

Five Michigan tribes have fishing rights under a federal treaty signed in 1836 and the DNR order does not affect their operations.