Leelanau News and Events

Can Fishtown's Coming Apprenticeship Program Help Save Commercial Fishing In Michigan?

By Craig Manning | Feb. 22, 2023

How do you keep an industry alive when even those who carry it in their blood aren't making a true living at it? That’s a question the Fishtown Preservation Society has been trying to answer for the past several years, as commercial fishing in Leland – and throughout the Great Lakes – has floundered. But could an in-the-works apprenticeship program help inject some new energy and innovation?

Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, teased the prospect of apprenticeships to the Leelanau Ticker at the end of the last year, highlighting the possibility as a new puzzle piece in Fishtown’s ongoing efforts to educate locals and visitors about fishing history, culture, and economic impact in northern Michigan. While Fishtown has always been a hub of knowledge and history around fishing, Holmes touted apprenticeships as a chance to encourage more people to get involved.

“One of the challenges of commercial fishermen around the Great Lakes is that you don't have enough people who know how to do the work,” Holmes told the Leelanau Ticker in December. “So I’m actually working with Michigan Sea Grant to develop an apprenticeship program, which would take a handful of people each year. And they could end up doing anything from hands-on stuff like learning how to weld and repair engines, to doing fisheries management and getting a better understanding of why this industry works the way it does.”

While many industries continue to struggle with hiring, the fishing economy’s issues go deeper than simple COVID-era labor challenges. From invasive species that have changed the dynamics of local fish populations to state rules that heavily restrict the types of fish commercial fishers are even allowed to go after, making a living is no easy feat.

According to Holmes, the primary challenge in Fishtown is that the two fishing vessels owned by the Fishtown Preservation Society – the Joy and the Janice Sue – are extremely limited in what they can catch. The Joy is only licensed to go after whitefish, while the Janice Sue can only catch chub.

“Unfortunately, right now, the chub population is pretty much nonexistent,” Holmes explains. “I know there are a few spots in the Great Lakes where they're being caught. If someone is wanting a Chubby Mary [the iconic Bloody Mary served by The Cove in Fishtown], those actually are Great Lakes chub, and they’re caught by a fisherman I know personally. But The Cove doesn’t like to make it known where they get this chub, because there just aren't very many of them out there.”

Due to the chub shortage, Holmes says the Janice Sue effectively cannot be viable as an operational commercial vessel. “We keep her in good shape, but right now, unless there's a resurgence [in the chub population], it's not practical for us to go out in that boat and set a net and hope to get 10 fish.”

The situation for the Joy is also fraught. When Holmes first came to Fishtown in 2007, she says the Joy had a whitefish quota of “around 65,000 pounds of fish per year” and was reliably hitting or getting close to that quota. “But anyone who studies the graphs of what's happened in the Great Lakes, there have been a lot of changes, and one of those changes is that the population of whitefish has dropped considerably,” Holmes notes.

“The main fish that anyone catches [near Leland] right now – but not us, because we're not allowed to – is lake trout,” Holmes continues. “Lake trout enjoy eating some of the invasive species out there, so they are everywhere out off the coast of Leland and throughout all the areas where we can fish. And lake trout are voracious eaters: They love a good meal, and they will eat whatever's around them, including other small fish. The result is that they have kind of taken over the territory where the whitefish were.”

Because of the lake trout resurgence and its disruption to the food chain, numbers and quotas for whitefish are dipping throughout the Great Lakes fishery. Last year, Holmes said the catch limit was just 17,200 pounds of fish – a little over a quarter of what the Joy could catch 15 years ago.

“The price for whitefish is typically $1.50 to $2.50 a pound, depending on where you go,” Holmes says. “So if you’ve put $300 worth of gas in your tank, and you’ve taken out your crew, and you've worked your net, and you've cared for the boat, and you've caught your entire quota, but you’re still just getting $2 a pound, you’re still only bringing in around $34,000. That's not a good living.”

So how could an apprenticeship program help solve these existential challenges?

Per Holmes, the concept is still in its early stages,= and could look different depending on whether Michigan Sea Grant can get funding for a Michigan-wide effort, or if Fishtown will need to go it alone. 

“We kind of started things off experimentally last summer,” Holmes says of the latter. “Joel Peterson of Carlson’s Fishery [who captains the Joy], he had two people who he worked with in this capacity last year who will be able to come back this summer, and they’ve agreed to work with me [to help develop this program]. So we’ll sit down every once in a while to brainstorm ideas.”

For Holmes, there are obvious possibilities and not-so-obvious ideas for where an apprenticeship program could go. Holmes says Fishtown would love to target students whose interests or career paths intersect logically with commercial fishing – whether that’s welding students at the Career-Tech Center in Traverse City, or college students involved in the fisheries and wildlife management program at Lake Superior State University. Those ideas would help fishermen like Peterson crew their boats and reduce the “tremendous effort” needed to harvest a substantial haul of fish.

But Holmes believes it might actually be less obvious ideas that have the best chance of saving commercial fishing.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Fishtown's Joy was only licensed to catch about 17,000 whitefish per year. In fact, the boat is licensed to catch about 17,000 pounds of whitefish per year.

“It’s not just about going out and learning how to fish,” Holmes tells the Leelanau Ticker. “There’s also just the question of ‘Why is the fishing industry managed the way it is today?’ And in part, it’s because a lot of people just don't understand it, and some of those people are the ones making major decisions around it. A lot of our legislators really don’t understand what is happening to the fishermen and how they're being managed right out of business. So, what if we use this program to bring in fisheries biologists, and fisheries students, and those that are going into natural resources, and those who are going into political science? Because if you can have even just a handful of people that you can educate and influence and have them learn about this industry hands on, then even if that person doesn’t become a commercial fisherman, they become someone who understands the nature of what we do, and that’s what we need.”

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