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Great Lakes Fish and Fishing

2 | The history of fishing on the lakes

Commercial fishing
Native American canoes. Click for larger image.The waters of Lake Superior--or Gitchi (big) Gummi (water)--yielded lake trout, whitefish and sturgeon for the Chippewa and Ojibwe Indians hundreds of years ago. It is no wonder that several bands established villages on the shores of the lake in what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. Tribal fishermen harvested fish using large birchbark canoes and nets made from twisted and knotted strands of willow bark. They also speared through the ice and fished with hand carved decoys.

Fish were important as food for the region's native people, as well as for the first European settlers. Commercial fishing began around 1820 and expanded about 20 percent per year until the 1880s when some species in Lake Erie began to decline. Packing Lake Superior trout, circa 1936. Click for larger image.Catches increased again with the invention of more modern fishing equipment, but the golden days of the commercial fishery were over by the late 1950s. Since then, average annual catches have been around 110 million pounds (50,000 metric tons). The value of the commercial fishery has declined mainly because the more valuable, larger fish have given way to small and relatively low-value species. Overfishing, pollution, shoreline and stream habitat destruction, and accidental and deliberate introduction of non-native invasive species, such as the sea lamprey, all played a part in the decline of the fishery.

Today, only pockets of the once large commercial fishery remain. For Canada, the Lake Erie fishery remains prosperous, and represents nearly two-thirds of the country's total Great Lakes harvest. In the United States, the commercial fishery is based on lake whitefish, smelt, bloater chubs and perch, and on alewife for animal feed. Commercial fishing is limited by a federal prohibition on the sale of fish affected by toxic contaminants. The trend in the U.S. is to reduce the pressure on the fishery by restricting commercial fishing to trap nets that harvest species selectively, without killing species preferred by recreational anglers.

Native American fishing treaties
Through longstanding treaties, Native Americans in the region maintain their rights to fish in the waters of the Great Lakes. Treaty rights pertaining to hunting and fishing are very similar to modern-day property rights. Retaining certain rights when land is sold is a common practice. A property owner might decide to sell land, but retain some property right, such as an easement or mineral rights.

The biggest Indian fishing operations are being encouraged to switch from gill nets, which kill everything they catch, to trap nets, which let anglers throw back sport species that are alive when the nets are emptied. Trap nets are also favored because they can work like artificial reefs for sport anglers. Gill net fishing is completely being phased out in many areas, including south of the 45th parallel on Lake Michigan and south of Rogers City, Mich., in Lake Huron, leaving all sport species in those areas for sport anglers.

Related sites:
Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority
Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

The sport fishery: Fishing for fun!
Proud young angler with bass catch. Click for larger image.Surveys indicate that about half of all fishing in the Great Lakes region is done using a boat. The Great Lakes states have about 3.7 million registered recreational boats, or about a third of the nation's total. On the U.S. side, Michigan and Minnesota lead in the number of boat registrations, with 986,000 and 793,000, respectively. Ontario reports it has 1.2 million recreational boats. Minnesota ranks first nationally in the sales of fishing licenses per capita.

Fishing enthusiasts range from grandparents to pre-teens. More than 11 million anglers 16 years of age and older fished on inland and Great Lakes waters in 1996. And you don't have to own a boat! You can cast off docks and piers, or you can charter boats and captains in many areas to do "big lake" fishing in the open waters of the five Great Lakes. Charter fishing tours can offer several hours or several days of fishing excitement!

What's being caught?
Today, lake trout, sturgeon and lake herring survive in vastly reduced numbers and have been replaced by introduced species such as smelt, alewife, splake and Pacific salmon. Populations of some of the native species, such as yellow perch, walleye and white bass, have been steady in most areas. Lake trout, once the top predator in the lakes, survives in sufficient numbers to allow commercial fishing only in Lake Superior, the only lake where substantial natural reproduction still occurs. However, even in Superior, hatchery-reared trout are stocked annually to maintain the population.

In addition to the lake trout, the blue pike of Lake Erie and the Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario were top predators in the open waters of the lakes and were major components of the commercial fishery in earlier times. The blue pike and Atlantic salmon now are believed to be extinct. Currently, hatchery-reared coho and chinook salmon are the most plentiful top predators in the open lakes except in the western portion of Lake Erie, which is dominated by walleye.

Related site:
Fish Biology and Identification, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources - Fish and Wildlife

Photos: Native American canoes and fish packing (c. 1936), courtesy Minnesota Historical Society; proud young angler with bass catch, Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council.

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