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Surging Great Lakes threaten Michigan’s beloved Fishtown

LELAND — Amanda Holmes stepped into a 116-year-old fishing shanty last week and pointed out the challenges of preserving one of the last links to Northern Michigan’s commercial fishing heritage.

“You can feel the dampness,” said Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, as she stepped over fishing gear laying across the wooden floorboards.

“This corner is starting to sink again. Things just float.”

The shanties of Fishtown, a rare commercial fishery and popular tourist destination on the Leelanau Peninsula, have long faced wear from wind, water and even mischievous otters.

August 2019: Rising waters of Lake Michigan assault Grand Traverse coast. In photos.

Before this rainy spring, Holmes’ nonprofit had spent years planning a $1.6 million project to reroute stormwater from Leland Township away from the historic structures, renovate docks and its famous Carlson’s Fishery shanty and shore up foundations of two others.

Now, rising waters flowing into Lake Michigan threaten to increase the damage and cost of Fishtown’s preservation efforts.

While water has been high before, “we have an immediate problem and need right now,” said Holmes, whose group is still short of money for the project.

Water flows from the Leland Dam through Fishtown. Rising water is flooding some of the fishery’s historic shanties. (Bridge video by Jim Malewitz)

Some of Fishtown’s shanties occasionally take on water and others are eroding, prompting the nonprofit to crank up its fundraising appeals.

With precipitation 21 percent higher than normal,  Lakes Erie, St. Clair and Superior broke records for average heights during the month of May. All five Great Lakes could set records this summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last week, fueling concerns about ongoing flood risks across shoreline communities.

Some ship captains and marina owners welcome the recovery from low levels a few years ago, but the high waters have swamped beaches and docks across communities along the Great Lakes and its tributaries.

Related: Commercial fishing is sinking fast in Michigan. Time for more regulations?

Flooding prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare two emergencies this spring — in Tuscola County, which borders Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, and Wayne County, along the Detroit River, the nexus between Lakes Erie and St. Clair.

Along Lake Michigan, several tourist destinations are on flood watch, including Fishtown, which draws more than 300,000 visits per year, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of Michigan’s top vacation destinations which draws 1.1 million visitors per year.

Leelanau County, which includes Fishtown, was among at least seven Northern Michigan counties facing a lakeshore flood advisory on Monday, according to the National Weather Service.  

Damp but bustling

High waters didn’t scare tourists from Fishtown last weekend: The district bustled Thursday and Friday and bigger crowds were expected for Saturday’s Leland Wine and Food Festival.

Last week, the smell of smoked lake trout and whitefish wafted from Carlson’s Fishery while charter boats loaded anglers hoping to bag their own fish.  Visitor after visitor couldn’t help but remark at the shrinking distance — just inches — between Fishtown’s northeast docks and water rushing from the Leland Dam.

“I’ve never seen it this high,” said Bob Pater. His friend Ed Ciarniello nodded. The Cincinnati residents were in town for a party they call “Duke Fest,” named for a college buddy who had hosted the annual get-together for more than four decades.

“The standard [water level] that we've seen most years has probably been about 2 to 3 feet lower.”

Photos from 2008 and 2013 —  times of low water levels across the Great Lakes  — show dry dock pilings reaching as high as 5 or 6 feet above the river surface.

This summer, two structures on each side of the narrow river have seen the most water trouble: The Village Cheese Shanty, where David Kareck offers pretzel-bunned sandwiches and recently added extra sealing to keep out water; and the Morris Shanty, whose oldest section was built in 1903.

The Morris Shanty serves the Janice Sue and the Joy, two working commercial fishing tugs owned by the preservation alliance.

“I keep the back door unlocked quite honestly, for the day that I'm going to come down and there will be no dock,” Holmes said as she gave Bridge Magazine a glimpse inside.

She hopes the alliance will raise enough money to move the shifting, sinking Morris Shanty out of the water to allow for major renovations. As Holmes pointed to an anchor that helps tie the shanty to the shore, water swelled through the floorboards, soaking her shoes.

“Oh my gosh, it’s coming up right now,” she said. “I never wear my boots on the days that this happens.”

Storied history

This year’s flooding pales in comparison to the challenges hurled at the fishing community over the decades. Since taking shape at the turn of the 20th century and earning its moniker by the 1930s, Fishtown has endured tough economics, fishermen lost to Lake Michigan and invasive species that have ravaged underwater food chains and decimated some fish populations.

Water flows from the Leland Dam through Fishtown. Rising water is flooding some of the fishery’s historic shanties. (Bridge video by Jim Malewitz)

In Michigan, commercial fishing is done largely by Native American tribes, who won a lawsuit in the 1970s over treaty rights. All told, Michigan issues 49 commercial licenses to non-native fishermen, and only 33 are used each year, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Once a massive industry in the Great Lakes, the state-regulated commercial fishing industry now consists of 21 businesses that employ five to 10 people each.  Tribal and state-regulated commercial fishing collectively generate sales of $10 million to $12 million each year, according to the state.

Poster boards scattered throughout Fishtown pay homage to its colorful and sometimes tragic history. That includes the death of Will Carlson and the narrow escape of his son Lester (known as Pete) after the Diamond, their gill net tug, burst into flames and sunk in 1941. The tragedy nearly prompted Pete to quit fishing, but he returned to the waters after the Fishtown community banded together to build him another boat, the Good Will.

The Carlson family would go on to shape Fishtown into what it is today. In the 1970s, more than two decades after overharvesting and a sea lamprey invasion decimated commercial fishing on the Great Lakes, the family began purchasing additional deteriorating shanties before they could fall into the river and built similarly styled new structures.

Pete’s son Bill Carlson, who owned Carlson’s Fishery before selling it to his nephew Nels, helped launch the first iteration of the Fishtown Preservation Society in 2002.

Five years later, the nonprofit acquired all the Carlson properties, along with the Janice Sue and the Joy. The nonprofit now leases space to businesses along the docks.

If the nonprofit didn’t pay to maintain the boats and hold their fishing licenses, the fishery couldn’t financially survive. Keeping those tugs searching for fish to sell is vitally important for Fishtown and the broader community, Holmes said.

“It's integral to the experience of this area and all over the state,” she said. “People were losing those incredible experiences of going down to the shore, getting your fish and just enjoying it.”

Amid the nonstop talk about water levels outside of his business this weekend, Nels Carslon — the fifth generation in the family business — didn’t think much of the wet conditions.

“It’ll go back down,” Carlson said of the water, keeping his head down as he gutted freshly caught perch. “I’m not worried about it one bit.”

What keeps Carlson up at night is whether the tugs haul in enough Lake Michigan fish because the business doesn’t have enough cooler space for longer-term storage.

Fresh and local is the business’ novelty, after all.

“If we don’t get fish pretty much every day, we run out,” he said. “You're gambling on nature a lot of the time...There’s no guarantees, we can't just order this stuff.”

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