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Commercial fishermen hope for return to Lake Michigan

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. (AP) -- In the mid-1980s, yellow perch were a staple of Friday night fish fries around the Great Lakes. Indiana's yellow perch industry was thriving, and more than 20 commercial operators were catching more than 1 million pounds of yellow perch a year from Lake Michigan. Today, the perch population has been decimated and all the commercial perch catchers are idle.

Tony Bobrowski is among them. He hears the call of the lake two miles away and longs to be back out on a boat fishing for yellow perch. "I loved working the lake," said Bobrowski, 78. "It kept me trim and healthy, and I loved the work." Other Indiana commercial fishermen tell similar stories about being left adrift by a state emergency order in December 1996 banning commercial fishing for yellow perch. "I started working on fishing boats when I was 15 years old and had my own boat at 19," said Clayton Furness, 59, of Michigan City. "It's pretty hard to start all over when you're 50-something years old."

The state Department of Natural Resources hasn't entirely banned commercial fishing. But the fishermen say it has banned commercial fishing of anything worth selling.

Yellow perch population always ran in cycles. The population dwindled in the 1960s and early 1970s and rebounded in the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, Indiana had the highest perch harvest of any Lake Michigan state, even though only about 1 percent of the lake is within Indiana's borders, said Bill James, chief of fisheries for the state Department of Natural Resources. "The only way to describe them is delectable," James said. "They're very mild, a clean white flaky flesh. When you butter-fry them they're really just a very delicious fish."

By the early 1990s, the fish population declined sharply. In 1996, there were only 13 commercial fishermen left, and they were restricted to a total 360,000 pounds of perch. The reason for the downturn remains a topic of debate. Some fishermen blame it on the introduction of nonnative species, such as alewives and white perch, which feed on young yellow perch, and zebra mussels, which have damaged Lake Michigan's food chain.

Some cite overfishing and the failure of state agencies around the Great Lakes to take action sooner to limit yellow perch catches when the population began dwindling in the early 1990s. "Those are probably bits and pieces of the whole thing," said Brian Breidert, the DNR's Lake Michigan fisheries biologist. "I think you have a combination of many different factors that came into play."

Eleven of the original commercial fishermen still pay a $25 annual fee to keep their commercial fishing licenses in reserve while they wait for the yellow perch population to rebound. Furness, whose two sons and brother also still own commercial fishing licenses, wants to go back. "It's a very satisfying feeling," he said. "We had about 30 restaurants we supplied. You felt like you were doing something for your community."

* Tue, 8/13/2002

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