PERSPECTIVES: DNR Looks to Increase Commercial Whitefish Harvest

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is moving toward a permanent rule change that would allow increased commercial harvest of lake whitefish in southern Green Bay (officially known as Zone 1), which includes Door County waters. 

The DNR will hold a public hearing and comment period on the proposed permanent rule via Zoom on Jan. 4, 6 pm. 

Lake whitefish are now abundant on the Green Bay side, growing from $6 million in 2008 to $16 million in 2018, according to the DNR. On the Lake Michigan side, whitefish have declined substantially (Zone 3 and part of Zone 2), and commercial fishers have been unable to catch their quotas for many years. (The current lake whitefish commercial harvest limit in Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan, approved in 2010, is 2.88 million pounds of dressed whitefish per year.)

The new rule change would open the fertile Zone 1 Green Bay waters to commercial fishers while reducing the Lake Michigan zones. The draft rule calls for a total allowable catch of 1,176,889 pounds of whitefish for Green Bay and 800,407 pounds for Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan Commercial Fishing Zones.
Lake Michigan Commercial Fishing Zones. Submitted.

The DNR says the rule change reflects lake whitefish population abundance and distribution and that the Green Bay whitefish population can sustain additional harvest.  

Although this issue is a good news/bad news situation – abundant whitefish in one place, a decline elsewhere – it’s also an extremely complex issue. Sportfishers are worried that commercial fishers will overfish Green Bay not only for whitefish, but also for the “bycatch” of commercial fishing that includes sportfish such as walleye. Commercial fishers, meanwhile, say the change is long overdue, won’t deplete the population and gives commercial fishers fair access to the abundant resource.

The proposed rule includes electronic harvest reporting for all Lake Michigan and Lake Superior commercial fishers, establishes how the harvest for Green Bay and Lake Michigan will be divided between the three zones of Lake Michigan, and implements a system for Zone 2 to prevent overharvest in either Green Bay or Lake Michigan, while still allowing commercial fishing throughout the zone.

The rule also creates a new restricted area for trap nets set for whitefish in southern Green Bay. In addition, it would require commercial fishers in Lake Michigan and Green Bay to report the location and name of trap nets set for whitefish.

The rule has been years in the making and uses five years’ worth of data. 

Four public meetings were held this year and another four in 2020. The final hearing on Jan. 4 will take place before the state’s Natural Resources Board. 

The public is encouraged to submit written comments on proposed permanent rule FH-02-20. Submit comments by Jan. 4, 2022, by email to [email protected], or by mail to Department of Natural Resources, c/o Meredith Penthorn, Program & Policy Analyst, 101 S. Webster St., P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707. 

This week, we received two letters about the pending rule change: one from a sports angler, another from a commercial fisher. Those letters are presented below.

Increased Commercial Harvest of Whitefish Could Damage Thriving Sportfishing Industry 

As readers may know, ice fishing for whitefish on Green Bay has become a major winter attraction. Anglers from all over the Midwest travel here to experience this world-class fishery. Much of the activity occurs in the southern half of the bay of Green Bay (including Sturgeon Bay) in an area defined by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as Zone 1. 

During a typical February weekend, thousands of anglers are on the ice. This has resulted in a strong economic benefit during an ordinarily slow winter tourist season. Several major guiding operations provide services, including transportation on the ice, heated shacks, tackle, instruction and fish cleaning. Area hotels, restaurants and tackle shops are also very busy. A recent UW-Whitewater study shows ice-fishing activity on the bay creates on the order of $50 million per year in economic benefits, including several hundred jobs.

Whitefish are also harvested by commercial fishers in the bay of Green Bay in Zone 1. The sport and commercial fishers have coexisted very well for several years, with commercial harvests limited to 362,000 pounds per year. A new proposal calls for a huge increase in the commercial harvest in Zone 1 to 800,000 pounds per year. DNR studies show an excellent whitefish population that may be able support the increased commercial harvest in Zone 1. 

Many sportfishers, however, are concerned that this increase is too large and should at least be implemented in stages until we can see the impact on sportfishing. This seems particularly prudent, given that the economic benefit of the sport harvest may be up to 30 times greater than the commercial harvest. The UW-Whitewater study concludes that even a modest decline in sportfishing trips because of reductions in the quality of the fishery would have significant economic consequences.

Please show your support for maintaining world-class sportfishing on Green Bay.

Steve Lapin

Sportfishing angler and sport ice-fishing enthusiast

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

New Rule Would Sustain Commercial Fishing

I am the chair of the Lake Michigan Commercial Fishing Board and owner, with my son Will, of a fishing and wholesale business that supplies 30 other businesses and produces whitefish from Green Bay and Lake Michigan. 

After seven years of effort, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service population assessments, and four years of massive study by UW-Green Bay, Sea Grant and the DNR, we are moving forward with a very conservative rule. 

Our business and others supply this healthful, sustainable food to consumers. Although I appreciate the economic impact of sportfishing, this discussion has so far ignored that we supply fish to hundreds of businesses that feed hundreds of thousands. 

We are gradually implementing these changes. The quota for this year and next was raised to 561,000 pounds, resulting in a harvest of under 500,000. The fish we catch will not reduce the sportfishers’ take. In the current rule, more than 1.1 million pounds of fish are reserved for recreational and guided fisheries. The DNR will be running its SCAC (population abundance) models again next year and has built into this rule a quicker method of adjustment. 

The revenue stream from sport-license sales is a boon for the DNR, but there is no limit on participation, which basically makes the recreational fishery unregulated, even though the individual daily bag limit is 10. We are heavily regulated, subject to significant penalties for violations. The amounts we have invested make us concerned participants in the fisheries’ sustainability.

Charlie Henriksen

Ellison Bay, Wisconsin