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A Great Lakes Fisherman Learns Ancestral Lesson

IT is a sight that would make the Norwegian ancestors of commercial fisherman Bill Carlson proud.

Accompanied by the soft slapping of Lake Michigan waters against a wooden bulkhead, tourists stroll along Mr. Carlson's dock and pose for snapshots in front of the former wooden, gray-weathered icehouses, shanties, and smokehouses that he has turned into a deli, a gourmet ice cream shop, and boutiques.

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The tourists gaze at the ``Janice Sue,'' Carlson's battered fishing boat. They gape in the windows and door of his fish market as he flicks a knife, turning a seven-pound salmon into glistening, ruby-red fillets.

At the counter, a crowd jostles over ``salmon jerky,'' ``whitefish sausage,'' and Carlson's other culinary sensations. Meanwhile, 1 of his 2 charter boats bellies up to the dock, its three grinning patrons outnumbered 4-to-1 by their salmon catch - hatchery fish put in the lake years earlier as fry, now grown to maturity and delighting sport fishermen.

Carlson's part of Leland's ``Fish Town'' shows how far his family has come since it immigrated from Norway more than a century ago and began fishing on nearby North Manitou Island.

Still, Carlson's prosperity also points to the weakness of the commercial fishing industry in Michigan today. For nearly three decades, small, family-owned commercial fishing boats have found themselves in the way of what fishery officials call progress. Carlson and other Great Lakes fishermen have had to dramatically streamline their businesses or find sideline businesses. Hundreds who have failed to do so have fallen before bigger vessels and the politically favored sport-fishing industry.

Indeed, Fish Town is largely an ersatz tableau of what Great Lakes fishing was in its heyday. Its dockside bustle enchants tourists but masks how commercial fishing in Michigan is just a shell of what it once was.

Since the prime of commercial fishing in Michigan in 1930, the catch has fallen 53 percent to 16.8 million pounds. The number of licensed commercial fishermen in the state has shrunk in the last half century from 1,500 to 94. The state government engineered much of the decline. Since the late 1960s, it has systematically curtailed the commercial fishing fleet, openly subordinating it to more lucrative sport fishing.

``My heart goes out to third and fourth generation commercial fishermen. But there are limits,'' says Don Nelson at the fisheries division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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Tight state regulations

Today, the state tightly regulates Carlson and his few score peers. He may fish only in designated areas and catch only chub and whitefish. On the lake, he often sees sport anglers and unregulated Native Americans haul in coveted salmon.

After the catch, Carlson returns to the tourists at his faux fishing village. His crew lugs the fish onto the dock, swiftly scaling, gutting, beheading, and filleting them before a wide-eyed crowd. Great Lakes fishing is now largely a pastime of comparatively wealthy anglers, not a way of life for families like the Carlsons. In the future, US markets will increasingly offer fish raised at aquaculture farms or netted by large corporate vessels, say Carlson and other commercial fishermen.

Given the decline of commercial fishing, Carlson is unconcerned that his children might not carry on the family's way of life into a fifth generation.

``I wouldn't wish my way of life on my children if it's not what they choose,'' he says.

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