Commercial trout fishing may return to Lake Superior
Written by Pioneer Press   
Sunday, 11 December 2005 10:57

It seems hardly imaginable any sport fishery in Minnesota would be ripe, once again, for commercial fish netters, but then, Lake Superior's North Shore salmon and trout fishery doesn't get many headlines anymore.

But on Tuesday, the Department of Natural Resources will unveil a proposal at a public hearing in Roseville that allows commercial netters to take 3,000 lake trout annually from the northernmost portion of the North Shore, a landmark step in the recovery of Superior's lake trout.

"This would be the first step in re-establishing a commercial fishery,'' said Don Schreiner, DNR Lake Superior fisheries supervisor. "It turns the clock back a bit."

If the commercial netting were approved, the fish would likely be sold to fish markets and stores along the North Shore, where the tourist trade is booming.

The draft Lake Superior Fisheries Management Plan, which is undergoing its first update in a decade, contains other significant proposals, such as eliminating the state's chinook salmon stocking program in Superior. But the commercial netting of lake trout is a highlight in the plan, and it marks a remarkable reversal of fortunes.


In 1962, large-scale commercial netting for lake trout was shut down in Minnesota's Lake Superior waters, according to Schreiner, after the lake-trout population crashed as result of predation by exotic sea lampreys.

Decades of lake trout stocking have brought the fishery back, and today catch rates for North Shore charter boats and sport anglers are near all-time highs. Last year, charter boats and sport anglers caught 25,000 lake trout on the North Shore.

John Raisanen of Cottage Grove, who has operated his Lake Superior FinnTastic Charters for seven years, said lake trout fishing has been very good, and in some cases, "my customers would prefer Lake Superior lake trout over a Lake Michigan salmon."

At the very least, the return of a token summer commercial trout fishery on Lake Superior is a notable turn of events in this state's fishing history.

After all, commercial fishing for sport fish in Minnesota has been verboten for decades. In the 1980s, sport anglers successfully fought to eliminate Minnesota's commercial walleye netting in Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake. Today, the potential for commercial walleye netting by Ojibwe band members at Lake Mille Lacs and Red Lake is a flashpoint in the debate over those fisheries.

Why? Managers and anglers have long agreed sport fisheries can't sustain modern commercial netting, especially in light of the heavy pressure and the economic value of recreational fishing.

But the lake trout recovery appears ready to sustain a small commercial fishery, Schreiner said, at least in the portion of the North Shore from the Canadian border south to the Cascade River.


Lake trout have rebounded to the point where they are no longer stocked in that region. The elimination of DNR stocking is also proposed from Two Harbors north to the Cascade River in 2007, and reduced trout stocking is proposed for the Duluth area as well.

The DNR won't call its proposal a commercial fishery. It's euphemistically called an "assessment fishery'' because commercial netters will be required to collect information — such as size and whether they're tagged — from a small number of their 3,000 fish,.

Assessment netting is already allowed by a small number of commercial netters in order to collect data for the DNR; about 2,400 lake trout are caught on the North Shore annually by netters for assessment, fish that eventually go on the market, Schreiner said.

He said expanding an "assessment fishery" to 3,000 fish in the northern portion of the shore allows the DNR to avoid changing legislation that restricts commercial fishing.

Raisanen said he isn't opposed to the commercial fishery proposal. "I think there's a place for commercial fishermen. They're not talking about raping the lake but taking a small number of fish. I have a spot in my heart for those people whose culture has been tied to commercial fishing. We owe it to ourselves not to get emotional about it."

He's more upset about the DNR's proposal to eliminate chinook salmon stocking, which Raisanen said would be a blow to the charter-boat industry.

Schreiner defended the move, saying a three-year experiment to continue chinook stocking has failed after only 42 pairs of salmon have returned to a special trap on the French River in the past three years. The total was 75 pairs annually. About 95 percent of the chinook caught in Minnesota come from Michigan, Wisconsin or Ontario.


Minnesota's Lake Superior fishery has changed dramatically in the past 30 years.

Rainbow smelt, which used to draw thousands to the North Shore each spring, are only a sliver of their past numbers. Wild steelhead have crashed but have rebounded slightly in recent years, and pressure from steelhead anglers has kept the DNR in the business of managing wild steelhead. Kamloops rainbow trout are still being stocked, but managers worry about the stock rainbows diluting the gene pool of wild steelhead, which are also rainbow trout.

Schreiner and other managers worry about increased pollution in North Shore streams, mainly from soil sediment arising from development. The lamprey problem hasn't been eliminated, either, as managers have seen a spike in the number of fish suffering from lamprey wounds.

Raisanen has praise for Lake Superior's fishery, even though he's getting out of the charter-boat business. But he warns it's still in flux.

"The lake is changing a lot over time,'' he said. "It's still a delicate fishery."

You need to login or register to post comments.