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Commercial Fishermen Sue Michigan Over New Restrictions


A standoff over fishing regulations in Michigan waters could lead to a major shortage of fish being sold from the Great Lakes. Michigan's commercial fishermen are suing the state over new restrictions they say will put them out of business. Lexi Krupp of Interlochen Public Radio reports.

LEXI KRUPP, BYLINE: It's been a warm winter in the Great Lakes. On a day like this, Robert Ruleau would normally be out fishing.

ROBERT RULEAU: It's an unheard-of January. There's no ice cover - nice weather.

KRUPP: Ruleau is a commercial fisherman working out of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the seventh generation in his family. Only now, he's not allowed on the water. His fishing license wasn't renewed.

RULEAU: I'm shut down. I'm losing tens of thousands of dollars a day right now by not being able to fish. It's sad. It's very sad.

KRUPP: That's after a state agency announced new rules to commercial fishing - changes like no catching fish in Lake Michigan in October and no fishing in water deeper than 80 feet. Dennis VanLandschoot says that's a gut punch to the state's fishermen.

DENNIS VANLANDSCHOOT: The whole industry is out of business at that 80 feet. We won't even put our boats in the lake. We can't catch any fish.

KRUPP: This depth is such a big deal because the number-one fish for the industry is whitefish. And they like really cold water. For most of the year, you won't find these fish above 80 feet in the Great Lakes. And state regulators acknowledge these restrictions will hurt commercial fishing.

JIM DEXTER: It would definitely have an impact on their ability to harvest those fish.

KRUPP: Jim Dexter is the fisheries chief at Michigan's Department of Natural Resources. But he says they don't have a choice on these new restrictions. And the reason for that? Well, it gets a little wonky. The state laws governing commercial fishing are really old, dating back nearly 100 years. And for decades, the Department of Natural Resources has issued its own orders to manage fishing. But Dexter says a lot of those orders aren't legal.

DEXTER: There were provisions that the department did not have the authority to enact.

KRUPP: The department supported legislation to update the state's fishing laws and fix this problem, but the commercial fishing industry didn't. So the bills died in the legislature. When that happened, the state instituted these new restrictions.

MIKE PERRY: These people are having their livelihoods held hostage by the department.

KRUPP: Mike Perry is an attorney representing Michigan's commercial fishermen. They're suing the state, saying the rules are retaliatory.

PERRY: I've been working in Lansing for a long time. I personally have never seen anything like this happen with any agency in the state.

KRUPP: Denise Purvis, who manages a fishing business in Canada, is also shocked by the turn of events from this side of the border.

DENISE PURVIS: It's crazy what they've done overnight to just finish those - like, it's like you don't care about business.

KRUPP: She says this would affect everyone catching fish in the Great Lakes because there aren't many commercial fishermen left.

PURVIS: If they remove Michigan out of this situation, there won't be enough whitefish guys left to supply those New York and Chicago markets. So they'll switch.

KRUPP: Switch to ocean fish like cod or haddock. That means if you're looking for fresh fish in Chicago or New York or at a fish and chips stand in Michigan, it's likely you won't be buying fish caught in the Great Lakes.

For NPR News, I'm Lexi Krupp.

(SOUNDBITE OF HATCHIE'S "HER OWN HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lexi Krupp holds a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Dartmouth College. After her career in education, she transitioned to journalism. Lexi comes from Gimlet Media where she helped the "Science Vs" podcoast team distinguish what's fact from what's not, and has written for a range of publications including Audubon and Vice.