2018-05-24 / Outdoors

Will whitefish save Fishtown nets?

By Jennie Berkson
of the Enterprise staff

FOURTH-GENERATION commercial fisherman Joel Peterson, shown aboard the Joy, remains hopeful that whitefish numbers will rebound. FOURTH-GENERATION commercial fisherman Joel Peterson, shown aboard the Joy, remains hopeful that whitefish numbers will rebound. The future of Leland commercial fishing may lie in whitefish that were less than 17 inches last year.

Joel Peterson, whose family is steeped in fishing history, is counting on those whitefish being plentiful and a bit larger this season.

The whitefish, that iconic Lake Michigan delicacy served in restaurants across the Leelanau Peninsula, have been in short supply in recent years. It’s been a challenge for the sustainability of the commercial fishing business operating out of Fishtown.

Peterson captains the Joy, a fishing tug now owned by the Fishtown Preservation Society that holds the commercial fishing license originally issued by the state to Carlson Fisheries. He’s looking forward to a better season.

That’s because 2016 “was a bust,” he says, netting only 4,000 pounds of whitefish. And 2017 was better as Peterson was able to net 10,500 pounds.

“I have one net in now,” Peterson said last week, “and I hope to get more in soon.”

Peterson is optimistic about this coming season’s possibilities because of what he saw in 2017.

“There were a lot of undersized whitefish last year,” said Peterson, who is required to release whitefish less than 17 inches long. “Hundreds per net.”

He’ll have to catch a lot more than that to come up to the license’s quota of 37,500 pounds. And even that’s not nearly enough to sustain a fulltime operation out of Leland.

“I’d need a minimum of 150,000 pounds to do that,” said Peterson, who also helps to run his family commercial fishing efforts out of Muskegon where supplies of whitefish are somewhat more abundant, at least for now.

Another fishing tug, the Janice Sue, is also owned by Fishtown Preservation and has a license for chub, an even rarer fish that everyone, including Peterson, would love to see experience a resurgence. Chubs have not been caught in the area in any reasonable number since 2010, according to the organization’s records.

Dave Caroffino, Fisheries Biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, confirmed Peterson’s observations about young whitefish but cautioned that the vast availability of whitefish a decade ago may have been an anomaly.

Changes in the biology of Lake Michigan, which can only produce so many pounds of biomass, may prevent whitefish numbers from rebounding.

If only Peterson were fishing for lake trout which are planted by the state of Michigan and have been keeping sportfishers busy off the waters of Leland. Last year, Peterson caught, but had to throw back, more than 18,000 pounds of lake trout. Fishtown Preservation licenses are only for whitefish and chubs, which occupy different sections of water.

Is it time to also plant whitefish?

“Lake trout is sport fishing,” said Brian Price, Fishtown Preservation Board member who was involved in the commercial fishing industry in different capacities for 18 years. “The sport fishing industry is well-organized. If there’s a policy that the State of Michigan wants to put in place that they oppose they can mobilize. The commercial industry can’t turn out enough people to make a ruckus.”

Still, Price said, is it time to consider whitefish hatcheries to bring up the numbers. “Whitefish have always reproduced naturally; we know where some of the spawning reefs are. There have been experiments by the Nature Conservancy where the reefs are monitored to make sure that the fish are successful. These fish belong to the people of the State of Michigan and have been a valuable resource for years.”

Meanwhile, lake trout are increasing as table fare at restaurants because their eating habits have changed. Now they are feasting on round gobies instead of alewives, which are greasy.

“The fish is delicious now,” said Skip Telgard, owner of the Bluebird Restaurant with his wife, Lynn. “There was a time you couldn’t give it away.”

All that said, Joel Peterson just wants to fish and to sustain his fourth-generation family business by supplying folks with locally sourced food.

“I’m 38 years old and have been fishing for 26 years,” he said. “When I first got on a boat I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the tops of the gill nets. I had to stand on a fish box,” he said.

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