Commercial fishing, once a Great Lakes way of life, slips away

It’s mid-April, and the gray-haired fisherman and his gray-haired son are not headed out for just another day of hoisting nets from the depths of Lake Michigan.

For decades their workday has always started before dawn. But today the men don’t climb aboard their battered commercial fishing boat until noon, because they aren’t hustling to get to their normal fishing grounds three hours out in the middle of the lake — a place that, from the view out the little round windows of the wheel house, is still as wild and lonely as any on the globe.

The men have always started their day wondering whether a load of fish is straining the nets that they set the day before. Today their compass doesn’t point them toward any nets at all.

The boat’s rumbling 855 Cummins diesel pushes them down the muddy Kinnickinnic River and under the Hoan Bridge.


This is the moment when their eyes normally train on the open waters ahead.

But today, the 52-year-old man notices his dad, Alvin, is glancing back.

“I think this is probably going to be the last time I see Milwaukee from the water,” 77-year-old Alvin Anderson says.

“Yeah,” his son, Dan, replies glumly.


Then Milwaukee’s last working commercial fishing tug — Alicia Rae — glides through the north gap of the Milwaukee Harbor breakwater.

And it is gone.

Today, for the first time since the 1800s, there are no commercial fishing boats operating out of Milwaukee.

The boats are gone because the fish are gone.


The lake appears from the shore as blue and beautiful as ever, but that’s not the lake Dan Anderson sees through eyes creased and scorched from decades spent on the water and under the sun.

He sees a liquid desert.

It is impossible to fathom what’s been lost since French fur trappers scratched a little village out of the forested Lake Michigan shoreline that in the past two centuries has mushroomed into home for some 1.7 million people.

This was once the wild, wooded Northwest, and the lake harbored one of the most spectacular freshwater fisheries in the world. Plump lake trout reigned atop a food web loaded with species such as perch, sturgeon, lake herring, whitefish and chubs.


It didn’t take long for immigrant fishermen to figure out how to make a living off these fish.

By 1900, commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan were hauling in an average of 41 million pounds of fish annually. As the stocks began to decline, fishermen’s efforts picked up.

By 1938, Wisconsin’s commercial fishing operations were motorized and mechanized and generated jobs for more than 2,000 workers. They were dropping enough nets in state waters, mostly in Lake Michigan but some in Lake Superior, as well, to stretch from Milwaukee to the Eastern Seaboard, and back. And those nets were still pulling 14 million pounds of fish out of Lake Michigan a year.

The fish were iced, loaded on trucks and rolled to cities as far away as New York.


Back then, Milwaukee’s Jones Island wasn’t synonymous with sewage treatment; it was still a fishing village packed with ramshackle homes, weathered boats and immigrants from the Baltic Sea.

“It’s easy to forget how much protein came into Milwaukee from Lake Michigan over the decades,” said Milwaukee historian John Gurda. “Whether they were fried in local taverns or sold from door to door by the urban villagers of Jones Island, local fish were an essential component of the local diet for generations.”

The historic harvest rates were unsustainable, but that’s not the problem today.

“The decline of the [commercial] fishery going on right now in Lake Michigan and Huron doesn’t have anything to do with overfishing,” said David Lodge, a biologist and Great Lakes expert at the University of Notre Dame.


“Clearly, that was a major driver in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that’s not what’s going on now. Now it’s changes in the food web that appear to be driven by invasive mussels.”

The primary suspect is the quagga mussel, which arrived in the Great Lakes as a stowaway in the ballast tanks of freighters that carried them across the Atlantic. Still a rare find in Lake Michigan until just several years ago, the mollusks mysteriously and suddenly went viral.

Today they smother the bottom of the lake almost from shore to shore, and their numbers are estimated at 900 trillion.

Along the way they virtually have eliminated from the lake their better-known cousins, the zebra mussels, which also arrived as hitchhikers aboard ocean freighters.


Each Junior Mint-size quagga can filter up to a liter of water per day, stripping away the plankton that for thousands of years directly and indirectly sustained the lake’s native fish.

Much of that food supply has now been sucked to the lake bottom; for every pound of prey fish swimming in the lake today there are an estimated three or four pounds of quaggas clustering on the lake bed.

“In the last five years, the base of the food web in Lake Michigan has changed more than any other time in the last thousand years,” says Gary Fahnenstiel, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fahnenstiel calls the Andersons and other commercial fishermen “innocent bystanders” in this unprecedented ecological meltdown.


Others might call them victims.

“It’s fair to say that the old food webs, upon which many fisheries were dependent, those food webs don’t exist anymore,” said Hugh MacIsaac, a professor of biology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, and director of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network. “And it seems to me that the people reliant on the old food webs have very insecure futures, simply because the old food webs don’t exist anymore.”

Egan writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/McClatchy.