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Defending Lake Huron’s fishery

October 16, 2011
Laura Johnson - Special to The News , The Alpena News

Part 2 of a 4-part series featuring partnerships between coastal tourism operators, natural resource managers, and community members in Northeast Michigan that have resulted in the enhancement of interpretive outdoor activities and conservation education. This series shares "best practice" stories based on the objectives of Michigan Sea Grant's "Discover Northeast Michigan" project-a website offering resources for current and prospective coastal tourism business operators in Northeast Michigan while encouraging conservation and community collaboration.

Lake Huron's fishery is nothing if not diverse. Ed Retherford, charter boat captain of the Trout Scout V in Alpena, provides a snapshot when describing his annual catch.

"I have caught this year, at different times: chinook salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon, pinooks, Atlantic salmon, lake trout, steelhead, lake rainbow trout, brown trout, walleye, channel catfish, freshwater drum, smallmouth bass, whitefish, and perch," Retherford said.

This diverse species list in turn affords a diversity of fishing opportunities in Northeast Michigan - both commercial and recreational - that fuel emerging coastal tourism efforts.

While invasive species and other threats continue to disrupt Lake Huron's valuable fishery, local stakeholders work across public and private sectors to defend the resource. Their collaboration supports a healthier resource and the sustainability of fishery-generated tourism.

Researchers at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Alpena Fisheries Research Station work with local sport and commercial fishermen to efficiently manage Lake Huron's fishery. Gauthier & Spaulding Fisheries allow DNR conservation biologists onboard their vessel to collect data from their catch.

"We get almost all the information we need about whitefish and the health of the population using their catch," Jim Johnson, manager of the Alpena DNR station, said. "We couldn't do it without them."

The DNR also works with commercial fishermen in the Alpena area to provide what Johnson said is not only one of the nation's largest supplies of whitefish, but also one of the most sustainable. This is because the DNR requires state-licensed commercial fishermen to use trap nets, as opposed to gill nets.

"The DNR prohibits the use of gill nets because of their effect on other species. They're not selective," Johnson said.

Gill nets impart a near 100 percent mortality rate for non-target fish (species fishermen cannot commercially harvest) like salmon, lake trout, and walleye. Trap net catch is held alive in "pots." Fishermen can release non-target species, many of which provide value to the recreational fishery. This management strategy allows commercial and recreational fisheries to co-exist and diversifies tourism opportunities.

A successful, sustainable commercial fishery also requires public awareness. With this in mind, Michigan Sea Grant worked with the industry to launch Legends of the Lakes - a marketing initiative that adds value to fresh Great Lakes whitefish caught by a cooperative of fishermen who abide by environmental practices. Whitefish products with the Legends of the Lakes brand signify premium, pin-boned fillets. The brand is mainly offered in urban, southern Michigan markets; however, John Gauthier of Gauthier & Spaulding Fisheries sees the benefit for his seasonal customers.

"Tourists that come here in the summer are always asking, 'Where can we get your fish downstate?' This is a good avenue for them to actually get the best fish we have," Gauthier said.

Brandon Schroeder, Michigan Sea Grant's northeast district extension educator, said the program is important "because it gets at resource sustainability, local and healthy foods, enhancing economic value to fish operators, and creating tourism development opportunities for local communities."

Beyond sustainable practices and marketing initiatives, local fishermen work with the public sector to advise policy decisions and support fisheries education and outreach. Retherford serves on the Lake Huron Citizen Fishery Advisory Committee - a group established by the DNR to improve and maintain fishery resources of Lake Huron through better communication and partnership. Retherford also offered his services to Michigan Sea Grant by participating in the 4-H Great Lakes and Natural Resources Camp, hosted annually in Presque Isle County.

"Through Ed's leadership and contributions, every participating camper experiences Lake Huron first-hand through a charter fishing trip," Schroeder said. "Through this trip, students are learning about fish ecology and Great Lakes ecosystems, and connecting their role as future resource stewards and leaders."

These examples of collaborative fisheries research, promotion, conservation, and education, illustrate local stakeholders support for the sustainability of Lake Huron's ecosystem and the sport and commercial fishery tourism that depend on a healthy resource.

"End of day, this is all about supporting responsible, sustainable use of a Great Lakes fishery," Schroeder said. "(We're) protecting a valued resource, while ensuring opportunities for our coastal communities to continue to capitalize on these valuable fisheries resources, such as through tourism opportunities."

For more "best practice" stories or resources for Northeast Michigan coastal tourism operators, visit Michigan Sea Grant's Discover Northeast Michigan website:



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