Fisheries Heritage Trail forms to link Michigan Historic Fishing Villages

Fisheries Heritage Trail Inaugural Meeting, Fall 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

A new group recently met at Fishtown in Leland to initiate the Fisheries Heritage Trail. The trail will link historic fishing villages throughout the Great Lakes. It will provide access to historic archives relating to commercial fishing as well as the sites occupied by shoreline communities where fishers lived.  The effort is sponsored by Sea Grant, Michigan Maritime Museum, the Pokey Huddle Institute and NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and others.       

Fresh Great Lakes fish bought in the market are caught by commercial fishers, sports fishers are not allowed to sell fish they catch by hook and line. Commercial fishing operations still use classic high deck tugs that can protect the crew from the weather all year round. The tug I worked on had a coal stove that really kicked out the heat. Trap net commercial operations use vessels with low decks and generally only fish in good weather.

It was decreed with consent that the sports/commercial fishing divide would be defined by kinds of fish caught as well as fishing methods. Commercial fishers catch coregonids, whitefish, chubs, cisco and herring. These native fish of the genus coregonus live in all parts of Great Lakes waters and throughout colder regions of the globe. Sports fishers catch large predator fish that are raised in hatcheries and have biometric tags inserted in their heads as they are released.

As the 20 year period of the consent decree approaches the end, it is apparent that the fisheries resources pie has changed since 2000. While some species have declined others have increased such as walleye in the Saginaw bay. Many feel it would be appropriate to allow commercial walleye fishing in the Saginaw Bay. Randall Claramunt of the DNR has recently talked about “paradigm shift” due to changing fish populations. 1.

The catch of native whitefish (coegonus cupaliformis) in Lake Michigan and Huron is still substantial, 2.2 million pounds in 2015. The trap nets whitefish are caught in stand on the bottom of the lake in shallow areas and are pulled up and checked for fish. The tugs set gill nets that can stand at depths of hundreds of feet.

Commercial fishing vessel at Leland, Fall 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Aquaculture in Michigan is in service of sportsmen. Sportsfishermen are fishing harder with their hooks and lines for the non-native game fish raised in State of Michigan Hatcheries. The State government has a firm hold on aquaculture and an enthusiastic constituency of sportsmen. As the ecosystem changes and the “consent decree” expires it is time to rethink how fisheries in Michigan are managed. With an eye to history, thoughtful decisions can be made with the consent of stake holders. Many who buy fresh Great Lakes fish in the market recognize the efforts of commercial fishers. Efforts to expand aquaculture operations in Great Lakes waters are long over due.

The Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage Trail can provide perspective on how the fisheries resource has changed. The Consent Decree renegotiation is an opportunity to envision a new paradigm. Former commercial fishers and others knowledgeable in fisheries issues support the expansion of commercial fishing and aquaculture in the open waters of the Great Lakes. State governments have the expertise to manage such operations without interfering with sportsmen as they take their boat rides in fine weather.

1. “King salmon reign becomes more precarious on changing Great Lakes”; Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press Published, Oct. 23, 2017

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal.

November Events feature Leelanau Photographer, History of Merchant Shipping, and Genealogy Sharing

Jack Hobey presents Edward Beebe’s Historic Leelanau Photographs
Wednesday, November 15th 4:30pm

at Leelanau Historical Society


During the Golden Age of Postcards, Edward Beebe documented the resort, lumbering and transportation history of Leelanau County.  Between 1909 and 1915,  he was the best-known photographer in northern Michigan, using a large format camera and producing glass plate negatives that developed incredible black and white photographs.

He came to North Manitou Island first to photograph its lumber industry. The rugged beauty and the character of its residents captured his imagination and brought him back frequently. Historic Leelanau Photographs of Leland, Suttons Bay and North Manitou Island from 1909 to 1915 captures nearly 300 of these rare historic photos with a narrative of these early times written by Edward Beebe, Jack Hobey expert.

Leelanau Historical Society is located at 203 E. Cedar Street, Leland, Michigan 49654.

Group of Santas at the Mobil Gas Station in Traverse City, ca. 1955. From the Al Barnes collection, Traverse Area District Library.

Grand Traverse Area Genealogical Society Hosts Annual “Holiday Sharing”
Thursday, November 3rd, 1:00 p.m.

Celebrate your breakthroughs in genealogy research (or recruit a few awesome minds to assist you with your brick wall) at GTAGS’ annual “Holiday Sharing” Meeting! Enjoy some social time and engage with others of like-mind.

Meetings are held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints  3746 Veterans Drive, Traverse City,  Michigan. Event is free of charge and the public is encouraged to attend.

Ships at the Traverse City docks. (R-L)”Che-qua-me-gon”, “Illinois”, “Manistique, Marquette and Northern No. 1 ferry ” on far left, taken by Orson W. Peck, 1908. Image from the Historical Society Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

John Brian presents A History of Merchant Shipping on the Great Lakes
Sunday, November 19th, 1-3 p.m.
at Traverse Area Historical Society

Join us on Sunday, November 19th, 1-3 p.m., when John Brian will speak on the history of Merchant Shipping on the Great Lakes in the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Brian is recently retired from serving over 25 years as a merchant marine deck officer on the Great Lakes.

Traverse Area Historical Soceity’s Monthly History Series meetings take place in the McGuire Room at Traverse Area District Library, 610 Woodmere Ave., Traverse City. Event is free and open to the public.

Railroad Tracks: Pathways for Plant Dispersal

Outside Oryana Food Co-op at Lake St. and Tenth, just beyond the old railroad yard, a stand of grass grows far taller than my six-foot frame.  The stalks are sturdy and straight, colored with maroon, gold, and a touch of blue at the nodes where the leaves come out.  They grow in the rubble of a formerly active railroad, amid the cinders, stones, broken glass, and pieces of coal of the roadbed.  Alongside the tallest grasses is a shorter species which looks much like the larger, but reaching only a bit above my knees.  It definitely plays second fiddle to its larger cousin.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Image courtesy of the author, taken in October 2017.

I know these grasses.  The larger is Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and the smaller—appropriately—Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).  Both are native to Michigan, the smaller species quite common along interstate highways and sandy, well-drained fields in locations where farming proved nearly impossible decades ago.  Big Bluestem is harder to find: the most likely place in Northern Michigan to find it is near Lake Michigan among the dunes.

Both grasses are prairie species. As components of that ecosystem, they depend upon environmental disturbance for their survival, that taking the form of occasional drought, fire, and windblown soil.  In Michigan we do not have good examples of prairie ecosystems.  Perhaps the oak openings around Kalamazoo and the sandy, unstable soils near Lake Michigan come the closest, but they lack many prairie species present further west.  Sleeping Bear dunes has areas heavily populated with prairie grasses, especially Big and Little Bluestem.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). Image courtesy of the author, taken in October 2017.

If prairies are the natural habitat of these grasses, then why are they found along railroad tracks?  Two reasons occur to me: first, railroads do away with woody plants growing near the tracks through pruning or herbicides.  With no trees to shade them out, grasses have the advantage.  The second reason has to do with fire.  Before the days of diesel engines, fires along railroad tracks were common as hot cinders escaped the smoke stacks of steam engines.  Fire would spread from the tracks, sometimes starting wildfires that extended for miles.  Of course, lightning causes such fires, too.

Michigan does not have the endless oceans of grass rippling in the wind as the Dakotas or eastern Montana do.  Buffalo did not wander among stalks of Big Bluestem that grew shoulder-high to those animals.  The sky did not spread to the far horizon, creating a sense of both immensity and emptiness as Western writers describe for us.  Instead, here the hills and trees make for a more closed—some would say, friendly environment.  Still, in small places and large expanses all around—by old railroad tracks and in sand dunes—we get a hint of the prairie further west, only we must search hard to find it.  Look along railroad tracks to find Big and Little Bluestem before the snow presses their stalks to the earth.