New life for old industry
Written by Wisconsin State Journal   
Sunday, 20 March 2005 09:13
Tightly moored to computers and cell phones - often cringing as we dash from car to office door in winter - most of us only shudder at the thought of tending fish nets in frigid Great Lakes waters.

Yet, even on below-zero mornings, fishing tugs from Superior to South Milwaukee and from Port Wing to Port Washington cut channels from ice-bound harbors to pursue chubs, herring and whitefish in open water. Despite fluctuating fish populations, tight harvest limits, and changing ecosystems, this 200-year-old industry has survived, if tenuously, in part by changing offerings (and the way they're sold) to meet changing demands.

"I can't say if I'll be in business next year," says Jeff Weborg, 57, of Gills Rock, a fourth- generation commercial fisherman specializing in whitefish. "The fishery's changed dramatically. You used to be able to say why you had a bad year. Now there's too many variables - the sewage, the invasive species, the freshwater shrimp's gone. And now you see whitefish eating zebra mussels."

The fish are hungry

"The fish are running out of things to eat," he says. The shrimp-like diporeia, which once wriggled thick on his cleaning table and are crucial for whitefish survival, are now scarce in Door County waters, he says. He also sees fewer alewives, once common to the point of being a nuisance. One wonders how well stocked trout and salmon - top-line predators hailed by some as saviors of this fishery - will fare if food is indeed running out.

By DNR and fisherman accounts, whitefish appear to be in a long-term decline (though both groups acknowledge that whitefish populations may be cyclic). Both groups also note slower whitefish growth rates in recent years. Also, Green Bay's once legendary perch fishery has dwindled. Some say that zebra mussels filter nutrients out of the water, making it too sterile for the diporeia on which many species feed. Others think that exotic species (Pacific trout and salmon among them) and years of pollution have finally taken their toll.

Whatever the cause, there are fewer commercial fishermen today. In 1977, there were 200 Wisconsin commercial fishing licenses on Lake Michigan; now there are 60. Colder, cleaner Lake Superior has fared better, though its Wisconsin commercial fishing fleet numbers only about 10.

Changing products, chang ing times

"The Old Man watched through the window. It was reassuring to see his sons throwing their shoulders into the work - stretching endless nets. They moved about the beach tasks as men who knew what they were about. Roger and the twins, Raphael and Gabriel. Each of them standing over six feet in his booted feet and built from the ground up like ax handles. Yes, he had given his boys strength and that strength linked his sons together like the links of an anchor chain."

It's only fitting, then, that some of these rough-and-ready operations hold on. Strength and judgment are crucial on the open water, but perseverance keeps the shop open. Charlie Voight took over his father's fish shop in Gills Rock. Voight, 51, quit fishing 20 years ago. He now runs Charlie's Smokehouse (, a modest storefront in Gills Rock with a smokehouse out back. He still smokes fish over Door County maple. He still gets chubs and whitefish from local fishermen. But, despite the store's plain appearance, there's global panache at work. His salmon comes from Alaska and Chile; lake trout from Canada. He sells fish online, nicely packaged and suitable for gifts. He even carries fish sausage, a mild blend of salmon and whitefish, lightly peppered and maple-smoked.

Bearcat's Fish Shop, at the base of the Door Peninsula in Algoma, kicks it up a notch. Indeed, it may only be by combining the traditional with the unexpected that commercial fish operations stay afloat. Lake Michigan chubs and whitefish are smoked here using Bearcat's custom mix of maple, apple, and cherry; whitefish sausage comes in Cajun and Italian flavors. There's a dizzying array of Door County products and pickled fish. You can also buy alligator, frogs' legs and conch here. Perhaps the local fish shop is on its way to becoming a specialty store.

In Wisconsin's southwest corner, Prairie du Chien commercial fisherman Mike Valley makes snapping turtle and catfish jerky.

"It's real popular. I can hardly keep it in stock," he says. The jerky is made from Mississippi River catfish and turtles that he catches. But he, too, following what seems to be a growing trend, sells frogs' legs, bluegill, perch, and walleye that originate elsewhere. He has even made, and sells, a video on how to smoke fish.

Lake Superior's commercial fishery remains more stable than that of the other Great Lakes. With sea lampreys kept out in recent years - through weirs, poisoning and sterilization - lake trout populations are rebounding in this cold, rocky lake. Whitefish populations remain strong. But to be sure, this capital- and labor- heavy business - done largely during the coldest part of the year on the world's largest lake - is no easy road to riches.

While Bearcat's brings the world to you, Bayfield's Bodin Fisheries brings a bit of Lake Superior to the rest of the world. Herring and whitefish caviar - at $10 a half-pound tub - is catching on fast as a tasty and affordable alternative to $40 an ounce Russian Beluga. Lake Superior fishing operations are literally shipping out tons of it. Sweden is the largest consumer. Japan and elite East Coast and West Coast restaurants are also big buyers. The mild taste and crunchy texture makes it an easy entr e into this world of strong tastes (and prices).

Don't write off Wisconsin's commercial fishermen. As Jeff Weborg's father said to him 40 years ago during a brief hiatus from the family business: "You may be done with fishing, but fishing's not done with you."

While some might throw in the towel in such bleak times, commercial fishermen contend daily with nature's elements and the market's whims. One might argue that natural selection is built into this occupation: Only the strong need apply. And, as fishing runs in families, maybe this strength is passed down through generations. George Vukelich's book "Fisherman's Beach," based on the LeClair commercial fishing family of Two Rivers, drives home this point:
Weborg sees an alarming sign in the stomachs of Lake Michigan fish that he cleans: They're empty, or full of half- digested zebra mussel.
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