Benthic Habitats and the Effects of Fishing

Symposium Abstract: Occupational Endurance and Contested Resources: Managing the Cultural and Economic Tensions of Lake Michigan’s Commercial Fishery

M. J. Chiarappa

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569605.ch136

The establishment of commercial fishing in the Great Lakes in the 19th century introduced unprecedented economic considerations and ecological effects to the basin’s benthic habitats. By the late 19th/early 20th century, the alarming effects of overfishing this region’s benthic species Ñ most of which were the principal target species (lake whitefish, lake trout, perch, walleye, chub) of the Great Lakes commercial fishery Ñ was increasingly apparent to fisheries scientists and policy makers. The Great Lakes commercial fishery managed to weather these stock fluctuations until the end of World War II when the combined ecological effect of overfishing, sea lamprey predation, and a disproportionate alewife population dangerously reduced benthic dwelling species. With the exception of lake trout, benthic species have recovered over the past 50 years. But commercial fishers, particularly Lake Michigan’s, have not necessarily enjoyed the benefits of this recovery. As Great Lakes states revised their fisheries policies to enhance sport fisheries, commercial fishers faced stringent restrictions in their harvesting technologies, in their fishing areas, and in the implementation of quotas. Today, in spite of highly contested policy debates, Lake Michigan’s benthic fisheries are comprised of two constituencies that visibly utilize benthic habitats to maintain distinct cultural prerogatives and economic goals. Euroamerican commercial fishers draw on their cultural life, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and a legacy of economic adaptation to maximize their limited share of the benthic realm. Native American fishers, motivated by the maintenance of treaty fishing rights, are using the benthic realm for economic empowerment and the recovery of tradition-bound cultural/ecological awareness. Looking at TEK and the formulation of vernacular environmental ethics, this paper will consider the benefits and problems that have accrued to each group’s attempt to utilize Lake Michigan’s benthic habitat to achieve historical and contemporary goals.