Opinion | I’m a 7th-generation Michigan commercial fisherman. 13 are left.

Robert Ruleau is a seventh-generation commercial fisherman based in Stephenson, Mich.

I am a seventh generation commercial fisherman on Lake Michigan. Our family has been fishing Michigan waters since 1826, since before Michigan was a state. We've weathered through most everything imaginable, from all that nature could throw at us to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources playing Frankenstein with the Lakes.

My Great, Great Grandfather Schyuler was one of the great pioneer fishermen and owned all of what is now J.W. Wells State Park in the Upper Peninsula.

At one time back in the 1980’s our company, Ruleau Bros., employed over 100 people and produced over 50 million pounds of fish. We have about 15 employees today, due to continuing over-regulation by the DNR, invasive species, and down to having only one fish left to take … the whitefish.

Today, there are only 13 commercial fish companies left in Michigan, not counting Native American commercial fishing.

New proposed legislation will make it harder for my family to make a living off the water that has been in our blood for over 170 years.

My family suffered through the effects of White Pine being clear cut back in the 1800’s when sawdust would choke the spawning grounds and rivers; the sea lamprey which sucked the blood out of lake trout and whitefish; invasive alewifes and smelt and, lately, the zebra and quagga mussels that filter the life out of the Great Lakes for a time. All these things eventually “fit” into the system but they take lifetimes. We are just coming around from the mussel invasion and the damage that it did and to have the DNR draw up more regulations is just not necessary.

Again, there are just 13 of us left in the state.

In 1965, Howard Tanner and the Michigan DNR decided to try and turn Michigan Great Lakes into a sport industry and to make that happen commercial fishing had to go. We saw nearly 2,000 fishing businesses taken away by 1970. This take could not have happened under today's laws.

Michigan DNR introduced exotic and unnatural species of predator game fish into the system and completely upended its dynamics. It was also, in my opinion, an unconstitutional take ‒ taking from one user and giving to another ‒ mostly for the sake of creating a bloated DNR bureaucracy. This playing with nature has had some very negative impacts and some very untrue realities, most significantly being the constant beating of the multi-billion-dollar value of this sport industry.

Seven billion dollars! This is the number constantly used by all sport groups, DNR and every press article about Great Lakes sport fishing for salmon and trout. I’m here to tell you that the "open water" sport fishing industry, the one that has been favored by the Michigan DNR over my commercial fishing industry, is a tiny piece of sport fishing in the state of Michigan. The bulk, probably 99 percent of all sport fishing in Michigan, is in inland lakes, streams, rivers and near shore, done by mom, dad and the kids, not on the open waters of the Great Lakes.

The vocal commercial charter sport fishers and sport groups such as Trout Unlimited have hid behind this fact and used the bloated dollar numbers to endlessly persuade our politicians to always vote in their favor because they "created" so much value. It's simply not true.

We are of late holding our own but still a shadow of what we once were. We do have a new product, “Door County Smoked Whitefish Pate,” that is offered at Whole Foods Market Midwest and we are attempting to get it into Meijer’s soon. Hopefully this may give a boost back to Ruleau Bros. for the future.

But DNR actions threaten to place the last death stake in my industry, one that is rich in history and provides a wonderful food source to millions of people who don't catch their own fish. Michigan commercial fishermen are there to see that they can ... don't give up on us.

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Tue, 07/02/2019 - 7:13am

This opinion piece is strong on passion and light on facts. The author's main point: he should be entitled to stay in business because his family has been in it for generations. That doesn't trump economics. As for the positions taken by his opponents, he contends they're "simply not true" and "unconstitutional." Basically, the author is trying to make his case using the printed equivalent of shouting. He'd accomplish more by calmly offering specific facts.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 9:30am

Perhaps, Anon. It also points out the facts that government bureaucracy introduced invasive species and picked winners and losers.

Robert taylor
Tue, 07/02/2019 - 9:42am

Free fishing days do not support sport fishing growth claims . Nature will win out every time .DNR anonymous just protecting their turf .

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 2:12pm

Someone who puts his name to his words is always more credible than someone who hides behind anonymous words.

Jim legault
Tue, 07/09/2019 - 8:46am

Anonymous- You mention no facts, offer no proof of errors and don't even post your name. I have followed the issues involved with the fisheries for 40 + years. You are correct Ruleau's statement is passionate but it is also correct. The attempts of the Mich DNR to systematically eliminate the Michigan commercial fishery is well documented in the court cases that resulted and the fact many commercial fishermen in Michigan felt the need to fish as tribal fishermen to stay in business. That somehow the commercial fishermen are putting the resource at risk is not true. The resource is more at risk from the regulatory policies put in places by Both Wisconsin and Michigan that are based on politics, not science. Currently, the lakes are being saturated with predator species.The forage base has suffered along with native species . Expect more collapses of salmon populations. The only reason is making fish easier to catch.The kool-aid that Howard Tanner served up in the 60's is still the favored drink of the fish managers.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 8:57am

In my opinion, this article is so full of inaccurate, misleading and false information that it boggles the mind. Does this publication even bother to fact check anything before putting it out there? A small group of commercial fishermen are trying to take over the Great Lakes fisheries and will likely ruin them if they succeed. They want to harvest sportfish like walleye and trout since some of the main species they now target like whitefish and yellow perch are now decimated or in decline in much of the waters they fish. Their nets also pose a major safty hazzard to fishermen and pleasure boaters a like. If they are allowed to their way, then the state will loose billions of dollars and that 7 billion dollar figure mentioned in this trash article, is likely very under estimated too in my opinion.

Jay Remiker
Wed, 07/03/2019 - 9:45am

As a sport fishermen I can tell you this their nets DO NOT cause a problem for boating. They are marked and visible. And if you can’t navigate in the waters with all the hazards of the Great Lakes. You should not be a captain on them. Now on to your other complaint is that they are taking all the sport fish. Well sunshine let’s look at menus at restaurants and bars. How do you think they can serve fresh walleye and perch. Who do you think caught those fish to serve at those establishments. And to the final point. I wish you had an idea of the amount of money that those few commercial fishermen payout to the DNR. Your $20-$50 for your license is nothing to what the commercial fishing industry has to put back into it. Remember if you can order it on a menu or buy it in the store it was caught on boats like Mr. Ruleau’s. Just to be clear. I have had some of the best sport fishing trips next to his nets.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 9:02am

If anybody was shy on facts its the first comment. We are all shy on facts and misled. I wish the story went into what the problem is. There is no reason why we cant share the lakes and land of this great state.

Frank Lynn
Tue, 07/02/2019 - 9:10am

We need a call to action to support the commercial fishing industry. Who should we call? What should we tell them? Please give us actionable steps.

Robert Ruleau
Tue, 07/02/2019 - 10:26pm

Thank you for your support Frank...please call your state senator...the new DNR bill has just been introduced and will be soon up for consideration...

Stuart Nelson
Sun, 07/14/2019 - 7:10pm

Where can we buy some of your fish locally? By local I mean around Escanaba.

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 7:52am

To you Robert Ruleau and All other commercial netters, time is up so start looking for a new way of making a living. This time around with these bills You will lose, hopefully everything! Your greed and lies are not being overlooked anymore. Our Great lakes are for All of us so grab a pole and catch them the same way the rest of us have to. Hope to see you in Lansing with the Petersons! Cant wait to meet the Fish Mongers wife!!

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 11:15am

There are two sides to every story! The current commercial Fishery laws are out of date and haven't been revised since before the 1940s. The entire Great Lakes ecosystem has changed dramatically and the entire Fisheries economy has changed dramatically. I'm sure there's a middle ground somewhere that sport fisherman and Commercial fisherman can coexist. But everyone's at the extremes and they don't seem to want to cooperate with each other. Kind of like politics...

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 8:14am

Joe Consumer: the next time you go into your local restaurant, or market, and ask for fresh water fish, ask your server, which sport fisherman supplies the product? If the restaurant can no longer supply you with perhaps the best fish in the world, or the price is simply too high, I suggest you buy yourself a fishing pole.

Trevor Y
Wed, 07/03/2019 - 9:04am

Seems like every other issue these days. Polarized opinions and no desire to compromise and collaborate :/

Kurt Maedke
Tue, 07/02/2019 - 10:20pm

everyone enjoys the Friday night fish fry but don't seem to realize that without people like Bob you will all be eating Chinese raised sewage fed tilapia

bill fisherman
Fri, 07/26/2019 - 10:50am

I agree .hell those tilapia aint even as good as carp for fertilizer!!!!

William Hammond
Wed, 07/03/2019 - 12:40am

I don’t know the veracity of all the author’s statements but a couple of things stand out to me:
• Regardless of who caused what the fact of the matter is that Commercial Fishing in the Great Lakes has been devastated!!
• The DNR and it’s various predecessors have picked winners and losers.

I believe that drastic changes need to be made to our laws to prevent the further loss of Commercial Fishing.

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 7:05am

This article lacks facts and is moreover a family biography. The sales pitch for pate at the end shows the motivation. Oh, if there is anyone interested-you can buy his whole operation for 8 million. I’d say that rules and regulations didn’t hit someone’s pocket book too hard.

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 12:50pm

While not taking either side, I think the article shows that unless all of us are educated and aware of these issues, then we live with what a few decide. I also live on the Gulf in SW FL and have seen how the management, or mismanagement as some say, has had a major impact on gulf sport fishing. Some say the Feds favored big Sugar and changed the flow of the Everglades. Some say septic and over fertilizing did it. In any case, unless we are truly educated then most of us won’t have a say in issues affecting us.

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:23am

I agree with you Paul, also a Gulf Fisherman and used to live in MI, so I know how the DNR operates similarly.

Thomas Brooks
Sun, 07/07/2019 - 8:45am

The Great Lakes are the most valuable store of freshwater on the planet. They are a multi-state, international resource. As such, they simply can't be left unregulated. The best minds and the best science have to be continually applied to their preservation. Fisheries--whether for sport or commercial--are a part of the big picture. Left to their own devices, have commercial food or sport fisheries been able to sustain or improve fish populations? Does any private business have the right to make use of the Lakes in any way it sees fit? (How about an oil pipeline company or a paper-making company?) Or does the value of the Lakes to all of the people of multiple states and nations create an overarching need for scientific regulation? I believe it does. The Ruleau Bros. business looks like a well-run concern. I sincerely hope that it can find a way to fit into the future of the Great Lakes.

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:03am

Personally, I dislike bureaucracies because they seem to be ever-expanding over-reaching entities that end up doing as much damage as good, and ultimately more damage.

I think much of the action that the DNR takes in the form of regulations are for the most part experimental and based on dollars, not sense. I'm sure leaders in Lansing have much to do with the problems and issues, just follow the money and influence, there you'll find some answers.

My question here is, since when is it legal to sell Sport-Caught Fish to restaurants or for restaurants to sell/serve Sport-Caught Fish in their restaurants? I thought they were regulated to only serve commercially caught fish, which is also a regulated food product. Without commercial fishers where will restaurants get fish to sever customers?

I know of at least one restaurant located in central MI which was fined 12 years ago, by the DNR for serving/ selling Sport-Caught Fish. I really can't see how anybody could think that sport-caught fish would be safe to eat since there are no regulations for sport fishermen concerning handling and /cold storing their catch... hell, some of them drag their catch behind the boat on a stringer as a form of refrigeration.

No, I don't want rotten sport-caught fish on my dinner plate when I eat in a restaurant. For that very reason, the Great Lakes needs Commercial Fisherman.

To put things into perspective; the sport-fishing industry, which is worth 3.7 billion dollars, about 28,000 jobs, comprises about 50% of the total Great Lakes Commercial, Recreational, and Tribal fishing collectively valued at 7 billion and supporting 75,000 jobs. The restaurant industry in MI is worth about 40 billion employing about 500,000 jobs.

The author is stating DNR regulations, and a diminishing fish crop is putting him out of business. If restaurants want to serve freshwater Great Lakes fish then the 40 billion dollar restaurant industry may be an influential force in this issue.
I can't imagine what would happen or what the result would be without the commercial fishing industry. I know the price of fish would go way up!

Janet Lixey Hughes
Fri, 07/19/2019 - 9:21am

My family was commercial fishing in early 1840s on Saginaw Bay. The Lixey family name was given to us by Native Americans who fished on my great, great grandfather fishing boat. My dad’s cousin sold his share in the late 1990s. The people who bought the company retained the name. The Native American commercial fishing and tried to get it for themselves. But, our fishing territories were given to us during a treaty in the 1840s. It is a hard life.