LANSING - As the number of active state-licensed commercial fishing operations dwindles on the Great Lakes, their downward spiral signals a change in culture as well as economics and environment, according to Laurie Sommers, a folklorist and historic preservation consultant.
"A few commercial fishermen still make a good living, but Great Lakes ecosystems are in crisis," said Sommers, the author of a new book about the Leelanau Peninsula area known as Fishtown.
"The fish are disappearing, and with them the commercial fishermen," she wrote in "Fishtown: Leland, Michigan's Historic Fishery" (Arbutus Press, $19.95). Lake Michigan, for example, has only seven state-licensed operations left. Among the reasons: "Biologists point to a combination of factors affecting the fish population: habitat, infectious diseases, pollution, global warming and changes in the food web due to invasive species."
Michigan set a cap of 50 state-issued commercial fishing licenses for the Great Lakes, although only 35 of them are actively used, supporting about 22-23 businesses, said Tom Goniea, a commercial fisheries biologist at the Department of Natural Resources.
Those operations landed 3.7 million pounds of fish worth $4.1 million last year, DNR figures show.
In addition, Native American tribes issue more than 100 licenses under federal treaty. Their annual yield about 6 million pounds last year - exceeds that of state commercial licensees. The annual value of the Great Lakes catch by commercial state- and tribal-licensed operations has ranged from $7.8 million to more than $12 million in recent years.
The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians issues the most tribal licenses, followed by the Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, according to the DNR.
Agency data for 2012 shows state-licensed commercial operations on Lake Michigan produced 705,000 pounds of fish worth about $1.3 million dockside. Whitefish accounted for virtually all their catch.
On Lake Huron, state-licensed operators caught mostly whitefish, with some yellow perch and small amounts of channel catfish, quillback and sheephead, worth $1.8 million. The Lake Superior catch was all whitefish valued at $584,000, and on Lake Erie it was mostly carp, buffalo, sheephead, channel catfish and gizzard shad worth $553,000.
Overall, tribal licensees catch mostly whitefish, lean lake trout and chinook salmon.
DNR says that its management of state licensees "maintains stable commercial fisheries, provides local economic stability and accommodates tribal fishing rights through negotiated harvest levels that minimize conflict with recreational fisheries."
The decline in commercial fishing has brought evident cultural changes are evident, and replacement of active fishing enterprises with T-shirt, souvenir and art stores is only one indicator.
Sommers said, "Without commercial fishing, a lot of local communities have lost a source of livelihood and a source of community culture."
And communities such as Leland "that have lost their fishtowns" were hurt because the industry meant jobs not just "for the guys on the boats" but also for people who built boats and packing boxes and transported the catch by horse, train and truck to markets in distant places such as Detroit and Chicago.
As part of that feeling of community, residents rallied together in times of trouble when boats were late in returning to port, or failed to return at all.
A Michigan Historical Commission marker installed in 1977 says Fishtown "continues to be a commercial fishing area as well as the headquarters for transportation to the Manitou islands."
Today, however, the fleet of fishing boats heading along the Leland River to Lake Michigan in search of whitefish and chub is largely gone. Where eight licensed boats used to venture out, only two are now active, both owned by the Fishtown Preservation Society.
The nonprofit society describes Fishtown now as "a collection of weathered fishing shanties, smokehouses, overhanging docks, fish tugs and charter boats," a place where we can still see and feel a connection to the long tradition of Great Lakes maritime culture.
"The structures and docks are real places where people can walk through, see and feel a connection to Lake Michigan's fishing heritage," says the society, which now owns Fishtown.
In August, the Michigan State University Museum will give a Michigan Heritage Award to Carlson's of Fishtown, a fifth-generation commercial fishing and fish processing company.
Leland remains the take-off and return point for ferries to North Manitou and South Manitou islands, which are part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Most of the approximately 10,000 visitors to the islands each year arrive by ferry, said Tom Ulrich, the national park's deputy superintendent.