ALPENA - After spending six hours on Lake Huron, a group of visitors from Finland returned to port Wednesday with their haul: 5,500 pounds of whitefish and new knowledge about trap nets.
The group of eight went out with John Gauthier and Tom Spaulding to observe their methods for catching fish. Fisherman Sami Veneranta was among them, and said he was pleased to see the day's catch.
"It's really nice to see how things are going in this part of the world," he said.
The group watched how Gauthier and Spaulding handle their trap nets, which are different from the ones Finnish fishermen use, Veneranta said. They also discussed some of the shared problems fishermen in both countries have, as well as possible solutions to them.
Maria Saarinen, Livia College program director, arranged the trip after a Finnish fisherman asked about Great Lakes commercial fishers around two years ago. While Great Lakes trap nets are completely submerged, Finnish trap nets have nets leading up to the "pot" that extend all the way to the surface. This makes fishing in deeper waters impractical, and the netting material is expensive.
Saarinen contacted Ron Kinnunen, a Michigan Sea Grant extension educator for the Upper Peninsula.
"I found his name on the Internet," she said. "Because 'Kinnunen' is a Finnish last name, I thought I should email him."
Kinnunen called Gauthier and Spaulding to see if they'd be willing to show the visitors how they fish, he said. He also told them about how commercial fisheries market their whitefish, as well as food handling methods and safety standards.
Saarinen also needed to find a way to fund the trip, she said. It took her about a year and a half to do so, and some opposed them traveling so far when they could observe trap netters in closer locations. However, fishermen wanted to see the kind of traps Gauthier and Spaulding use, so the European Union financed the trip.
Trap netting also could help Finns who fish an inland lake to save an extremely rare kind of seal. Lasse Hyytinen, Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment fishery biologist, said gill nets, a different kind of fishing method, can kill the seals if they're caught in them. By switching to trap nets, commercial fishermen can help the seals and save their livelihood.
Fishermen in Finland have a shared problem with Michigan anglers: cormorants eating tons of fish, Hyytinen said. He was impressed to hear about efforts to control Michigan's double-crested cormorant population.
"Nowadays in the Baltic Sea, we have lots of problems with cormorants," he said. "You have a nice solution for that."
After Gauthier, Spaulding and their crew trucked the fish up to their processing plant in Rogers City, the group got to see how their machinery automatically cuts the fish into two perfect fillets, Spaulding said.
"They fillet by hand in Finland right now, so that's why they're interested in the machinery," he said.
Over the course of their visit, which lasted a few days, the group also visited the Department of Natural Resources' Alpena Fisheries Research Station, Saarinen said.
This wasn't the first time Gauthier and Spaulding shared their knowledge of trap net fishing with a group of foreign visitors. Last year, they took out a group from Norway to show them much of the same things.
"We like to advance our trap net fishery business in other areas, especially on the other side of the earth," Gauthier said. "It's so cool, especially because they don't fish our kind of nets (in Finland), so it's a great opportunity."
Gauthier and Spaulding enjoyed meeting more people from other cultures, they said.
"It's a pleasure to meet these folks. We're glad they could come over; they're welcome back to come and see us any time," Spaulding said.
Saarinen said she and her group were glad to come, too.
"Everybody has been so kind and welcoming," she said. "You've touched our hearts, especially Ron Kinnunen, who has Finnish roots. He has put in so much time to help us."