COVID-19 raises commercial fishing questions

Michigan’s 13 commercial fishing business were deemed “essential” during the pandemic. (State of Michigan photo)

Does Michigan need commercial fishing? According to Governor Whitmer it does. If you kept track of the list of essential businesses the governor listed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic you’ll see commercial fishermen were allowed to continue operations while thousands of other businesses were ordered to close and their workers put on unemployment relief.

I’m not even considering the tribal commercial fishermen who are allowed to operate netting operations in lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. That’s a whole other issue. I’m asking if the people of Michigan are well served by allowing commercial fishing by non-tribal fishermen?

That commercial fishing is being permitted through the pandemic is not surprising to Jim Dexter, the Michigan DNR’s fisheries chief. “Fish are an extremely valuable source of protein for people. It’s an extremely good product. It’s all wild caught fish – a Pure Michigan product. People want a varied diet and fish is important,” said Dexter. “Our 13 (commercial) fishers bring to dock about five million pounds of fish (per year), which provides a significant number of meals.”

Does it? That depends on your definition of significant. Remember, by the time the fish are cleaned and ready to cook, that five million pounds is diminished to around three million pounds.

According to government statistics, Americans consume about 16 pounds of commercially sourced seafood per person, annually. Assuming Michiganders are “average Americans,” when it comes to eating tuna, shrimp, catfish and other seafood products and there are about 10 million people living in Michigan, simple arithmetic shows about 160 million pounds are consumed. Even if all three million pounds of Michigan’s commercial harvest is consumed locally, that makes up less than 2% of the state’s seafood meals.

Prior to the pandemic, commercial fishing lobbyists hired by Michigan’s commercial fishing were trying to push through legislation to allow them to harvest perch, walleye, lake trout and other species from Michigan’s waters. (Currently, they fish mostly for whitefish.)

Most sportsmen and sportfishing groups were adamantly against those proposals. Governor Whitmer’s administration sided with the commercial fishermen.

The pandemic sidelined the legislative effort to expand commercial fishing, even if it didn’t sideline the commercial fishermen. Still, with restaurants closed, initially, and still curbed drastically, the demand for whitefish caught by Michigan commercial fishermen dropped drastically. The bulk of Michigan’s commercial catch didn’t feed Michigan families unless they were dining out.

The pandemic will cause many Michigan restaurants to be closed forever. Will the commercial fishing businesses go out of business, as well?

Only time will tell, but if they don’t, expect renewed efforts to allow netting of important sport fish.

Categories: Blog Content, Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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