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Family Fisheries Struggle to Reel in a Profit

Tribes, State use local marketing to help fishing industry

November 23, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Bill Fowler steers his boat, the Beula O, into the Arthur Duhamel Marina in Peshawbestown, Leelanau County.

Bill Fowler steered his 42-foot commercial fishing boat into the tribally-owned Arthur Duhamel Marina in northern Michigan’s Leelanau County, the blue sky mixing with clouds, the air sharp with a fall wind off Grand Traverse Bay. His three young children, Joy, Joan, and Jake, ran to meet him at the dock as he unloaded the day’s catch of whitefish and lake trout. He’d later drive the kids to daycare before heading back into the water to take care of his nets.

“It’s going to be a long day,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Fowler, 33, heads one of about 75 commercial fishing crews licensed by the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, an intertribal body that regulates most fishing for the five northern Michigan tribes that fish the Great Lakes waters from Grand Haven in the Lower Peninsula to the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula. That’s down from a high of 144 fishing crews in 1991, a sign that Michigan’s family-owned fishing businesses, like family farms, are struggling against currents of economic change. And while tribal commercial fishing crews dominate northern Michigan, about 55 non-tribal crews statewide are also working to make a living in these troubled waters.

Substitute “seafood” for “farm products” and the story is strikingly similar to those in farm country. Grocery and restaurant chains purchase from large seafood distribution companies that offer them everything from Great Lakes whitefish to East Coast sea scallops — along with volume discounts and contracts that effectively discourage purchases from small family businesses. And then there’s the foreign competition. Canada, said Ronald Kinnunen of Michigan State University’s Sea Grant program, has flooded the market with lower-priced whitefish, which is the dominant species caught by Michigan fishing crews.

Despite such obstacles, the public sector here is trying to help the U.S. whitefish industry, which generates over $10 million each year. A Sea Grant initiative will help Michigan’s tribal and nontribal fishing crews, processors, and other fish businesses explore marketing options. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are using another grant to help them decide among its economic development options, including the possibility of a sophisticated, tribally-funded processing plant. The Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians purchased a fish processing plant two years ago in Mackinac City, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee currently is exploring options for docking tribal fishing boats, and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in Leelanau County maintains a marina and cement block building with cold storage and ice for the fish. Enterprising small and medium-sized fishing operations, meanwhile, are retooling for new markets, from the simplest of direct sales to local families who bring Styrofoam coolers to the dock to gourmet sales of whitefish paté.

“It is very hard work, and it is a challenge,” said Mr. Fowler, dressed in orange rubber coveralls as he slapped whitefish into eight crates of crushed ice awaiting the daily pick up from the John Cross Fisheries truck from Charlevoix. “But I see a potential to make a decent living on it, and it is something that I love to do.”

Family Fishing Traditions
The fishing tradition runs deep both for Mr. Fowler and the two companies—Carlson Fisheries in Leland and John Cross Fisheries in Charlevoix—that buy most of his fish. For Mr. Fowler, the tradition comes from his tribe, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, whose forbears signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1836 reserving the right to fish in the Great Lakes. His trap net fishing boat is the Beula O, named after his mother, Beula Ogemaw, and his business is the 1836 Fish Company. The tribal marina is named after the late Art Duhamel, who led the tumultuous federal court battle that reaffirmed Native American fishing rights in the 1970s.

The Cross and Carlson families have been in the fishing business for generations: Clay Carlson will be the fifth-generation owner of Carlson Fisheries, and John Cross Fisheries opened in 1945. Cross sells fish to other distributors, and to restaurants from Traverse City to the Straits of Mackinac, from its retail outlet on Round Lake in Charlevoix. Carlson sells from historic Fishtown — a Leland harbor tourist destination of converted fish shanty storefronts — and to a handful of local restaurants and grocery stores. The Carlsons used to fish actively, but now they mostly purchase, fillet, smoke, and sell fish they buy from other fishing crews. Owner Bill Carlson says that successive waves of history led him to scale back — first state policies that favored sport anglers over commercial fishing crews, then bulk commodity wholesalers that offered low and uncertain prices, and then court decisions that favored tribal crews.

Some customers, according to Mr. Carlson and his son, Clay, expect the Carlsons to resent the tribal fisheries because of the controversy around reaffirming Native American fishing rights. They are mistaken.

“We get along with them very well,” said Clay Carlson, who goes home “smelling like a combination of fish and campfire” after smoking fish all afternoon. “Knowing the people you are buying from and getting along with them is very important.”

Mr. Fowler echoes those views.

“Bill Carlson is a really good man,” he said. “He’s always been fair with me. And he’s helped me a lot. He’s taught me a lot.”

Clay Carlson, for his part, likes marketing locally because it means he can control his costs and set his own prices, and because of the community connections it offers. Cindi John, who runs the Treaty Fish Company with her husband, Ed, is one of Carlson’s suppliers. She tells a story about her sons eating at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, which buys some of its fish from Carlson, and realizing that their parents might have caught the whitefish served their that night.

“It probably was their fish,” Clay Carlson said, pleased by the story.

Building Local Markets for Great Lakes Fish
But if small fishing businesses want to increase such social capital and economic prosperity in the face of industrial and foreign competition, it will take investment, marketing savvy, and greater consumer awareness of the availability of quality fresh fish, industry analysts say.

A similar conclusion was reached by the Canadian legislature when it created the Freshwater Fish Marketing Company in 1969, and three years later loaned funds — paid back through revenues — to invest in a multi-million dollar fish processing plant that runs through 45 million pounds of fish a year, said Stephen Kendall, vice president of operations for the Crown corporation. The company operates on its own revenues and buys, processes, and markets inland fish caught by about 2,500 mostly small fishing crews, Mr. Kendall said. And the government-created company is marketing whitefish to Michigan, an area it sees as a target market. Mr. Kendall thinks that, with better marketing, more consumers will buy a whitefish, a product that he says has enormous growth potential.

“They are doing innovative marketing,” said Mr. Kinnunen of Michigan’s Sea Grant. “They’re sending materials to restaurants telling them the profit margin they can have on the fish, giving them recipes, doing lots of stuff our industry hasn’t done.”

To regain markets lost to the Canadians and to build new ones, MSU’s Sea Grant program is helping the industry build the brand name for Great Lakes whitefish and promote it to chefs, grocery stores, and household consumers. The Canadian inland fish tastes different — inferior, Mr. Kinnunen says — because the fish take on the flavors of algae from the lakes. In February, MSU conducted scientific, blind taste tests of Great Lakes whitefish and Canadian inland whitefish in the winter, when the inland fish should have been at its prime because there is less algae in the water during the winter. The 113 testers favored the Great Lakes whitefish two to one, he said.

Sea Grant also is developing a Web site, posters, and other materials highlighting the benefits of Michigan whitefish, including high omega 3 fatty acids that help prevent heart disease.

“Hopefully the public will see we have a superior product, and that it preserves a heritage and business in our own state,” he said.

It's All About Markets
Other marketing strategies include using the Select Michigan program run by the Michigan Department of Agriculture to promote state food products and the Taste the Local Difference print and Web guide to local foods in northwest Michigan, which includes commercial fishing operations. The www.LocalDifference.org guide is a product of the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Clay Carlson, meanwhile, said he hopes to see as much awareness of local fish in northwest Michigan as the local wine industry has been able to generate.

And Bill Fowler dreams of the day when he’s earning enough revenue that he can expand to additional operations including selling at local farmers markets, stores, and restaurants. That would take investment in appropriate equipment and added employees, consumer demand, and a business plan. He’s on his way with three fishing boats and a crew that can staff two of them if he has to go out of town.

“It’s a full-time job just catching the fish,” he said, his daughter Joy hugging his leg. “I keep saying, ‘next year.’”

Diane Conners is a journalist and organizer for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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