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Commercial Fishing: The Life, the Limits, the Lore

Steve Dahl, Commercial Fisherman. Photo by Doug Fairchild.

Steve Dahl, Commercial Fisherman

Like all good fish tales, the story of commercial fishing on Minnesota's north shore of Lake Superior has it all: suspense, danger, political rivalries… even a museum recognizing the industry's cultural contribution.

Commercial fishing began along the North Shore in the late 1800s. Settlers were used to the cold, rugged work, having come from fishing villages of Norway. Lake trout and ciscoes (formerly called lake herring) were the two predominant commercial fish caught.

Today, ciscoes (Coregonus artedi) and lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are still caught in commercial fishing nets, as are whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), chubs (Coregonus kiyi and Coregonus hoyi, also called deepwater ciscoes), and smelt (Osmerus mordax).

So, just how large an industry is Minnesota's commercial fishing in Lake Superior?

In the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) annual report for 2009, the regular cisco harvest netted 189,281 pounds (85,856 kg), with a dockside value of $247,956. With November's spawning run numbers—a harvest used mainly for the roe (eggs)—the total take was 408,905 pounds, an increase of 91,453 pounds (41,482 kg) over the previous year.

Steve Dahl, a commercial fisherman in the Knife River area for 25 years, says even during the recession of the past three years, demand outpaced his catch. Selling mostly to a local market—supermarkets, restaurants, and smoke houses … like Mount Royal in Duluth, Scenic Café, Kendall's Smoked Fish, Vanilla Bean Café, Super One in Two Harbors… Dahl finds demand is perennial. "Scenic Café tells me to bring in everything I catch; they'll take it all. I can't keep up with the demand," he said.

His season starts in April when the ice cover is gone and lasts until winter solstice. He fishes off Knife Island about a half mile out from the mouth of Knife River. His 1200 feet (365.76 meters) of nets are suspended at four fathoms (24 feet–7.3 meters–from the surface of the water to the top of the net). The nets catch fish at night. Ciscoes swim low and deep during the daytime and come up to feed at night, as their food source moves up and down the water column. In early spring when the water is colder on top, he sometimes sets his nets at eight fathoms.

The mesh is flexible, allowing Dahl to pick the fish out. His nets are semi-permanent, in that he doesn't move them around to different areas. "The charter fishing boats and regular sport fishermen get to know where my nets are, so they won't be trouble for them," Dahl said. The nets have cords attached that connect to large florescent orange floats on the surface marking their location so he can find them, and boaters can avoid them.

He heads out in his herring skiff just before dawn to check the nets. The early hour is best, when the lake is calm. The wind can cause havoc. Sometimes he stands or kneels about six feet back from the bow, in order to spread the net. A northeast wind at 30 m.p.h. means he could very well lose the catch.

Some weeks, he has no catch at all; others, he hauls in 400 pounds (181 kg) a day. On occasion, people gather at the Knife River marina having heard that Dahl has a big catch. Knife River is, after all, a commercial fishing town and word travels fast. If he has enough to fill his orders, he will sell fish right off the dock. He has to get the fish to market quickly, as his product is perishable.

During spawning season for ciscoes—a 6-week period from mid-October to the end of November—the daily numbers are big (600–1000 pounds/day), and that's just one person's catch. Interlaken, an international fish processing company, buys all the flesh and uses it primarily for gefilte fish, sold mostly on the U.S. East Coast. The roe, a lucrative product, is sold as caviar in Europe. (Cisco roe has increased in value from $3/pound in 2007, to $4.50/pound in 2009.)

Ciscoes are also an important food source for salmon and lake trout. Commercial fishing for lake trout is regulated by the Minnesota DNR. Dahl, for example, cannot harvest trout, since he fishes in the MN-1 area, which extends from Duluth to about Encampment River. In MN-2, which is from Encampment River to near the Cascade River, commercial fisherman can take up to 2,000 lake trout annually; and in MN-3, stretching from the Cascade to the Canadian Border—except for the area designated as tribal shores at Grand Portage—commercial fishermen can take up to 3,000 lake trout annually.

In the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior, approximately 80 percent of the lake trout harvest surprisingly occurs in the MN-1 area through an active sport fishery. The sport harvest in MN-1 approaches the total allowable catch, so the DNR does not allow commercial fishing for lake trout there. Don Schreiner, the DNR area fisheries supervisor says, "Exceeding the allowable catch could put the recovery of lake trout in jeopardy after many years and much effort to rehabilitate wild lake trout populations."

Dahl disagrees with that action, his point being that consumers still purchase lake trout in the Duluth area, it's just caught by Wisconsin or Canadian commercial fishermen, rather than locals. He believes the lake trout population has recovered enough to handle modest commercial fishing.

When Dahl and Schreiner talk about recovery, they are referring to the trout population’s ability to rebound after devastation by sea lamprey in the mid-20th century. From 1920 to 1945, the commercial harvest of lake trout averaged 4.4 million pounds per year. By the 1960s, that harvest was down to 500,000 pounds (226,796 kg) due to overfishing and sea lamprey. With lamprey control, stocking, and natural reproduction, Lake Superior's fishery has improved tremendously during the last 30 years. In the past decade, the proportion of wild lake trout harvested by sport anglers has doubled.

In 1995, the DNR, in cooperation with many user groups, developed the Lake Superior Management Plan, which was updated and revised in 2006. Cindy Hagley, Minnesota Sea Grant's Environmental Quality Extension Educator, facilitated meetings of the advisory committee that wrote the plan. The plan, which guides fisheries management on Minnesota's portion of Lake Superior, includes proposals to discontinue lake trout stocking in MN-2 and MN-3 where wild lake trout have rebounded, allow an increase in the commercial harvest of ciscoes, limit the number of commercial fishing licenses to 25, and extend the lake trout sport fishing season through the first weekend in October.

Despite the controversies and the cold, Dahl loves his work. "It's not the cold that bothers me, it's the warmth," he said. At the end of July and early August, winds push the lake's warm surface water toward shore, where it curls under creating a cold water upwelling. Currents are strong and they pull on Dahl's nets. [Imagine the 60-inch orange floats having only four inches showing above the
surface-the nets being pulled under by strong currents.]

"I'll take a squall in April when the lake is cold and stable, over a hot sunny day in August when the currents are so strong, I can't pull my nets up," Dahl said.

Fifty years ago, many questioned the continued existence of commercial fishing. With respect for a long held cultural tradition, and careful attention to a biologically-based management plan, today we once again have a sustainable commercial fishing industry.

[Steve Dahl is a member of Minnesota Sea Grant's Advisory Committee.]

By Nancy Hoene
July 2010

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