Busy commercial fishermen may be able to dodge higher fees

SANDUSKY This week, commercial fishermen begin catching yellow perch, Lake Erie’s most valuable fish. Last w
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

This week, commercial fishermen begin catching yellow perch, Lake Erie’s most valuable fish.

Last week, the same fishermen finally caught a break from Ohio lawmakers, who apparently won’t triple their licensing fees after all.

Ohio’s remaining commercial fishermen had to fight off an effort last year to put them out of business. Backed by the state’s sport fishing industry, lawmakers proposed buying up the state’s commercial fishing licenses and abolishing commercial fishing on Lake Erie.

Ohio’s commercial fishing season for yellow perch begins Tuesday. That’s why employment at Sandusky’s Lake Fish Company, which processes and sells fish, will go up by several people this week, said the company’s two owners, Dale Trent and Craig Carr.

Last week, 10 people worked there. Employment in the busy summer month ranges from 15 to 19, Trent said. Five people work at the company in the slow winter months, when Lake Fish keeps restaurants supplied with frozen fish.

Yellow perch is considered the tastiest fish in arearestaurants,soLakeFishwillbebusyTuesday trying to meet the demand of restaurants serving perch sandwiches and dinners.

Until yellow perch season begins, commercial fishermen such as Joe Smith of Sandusky have had to make do catching other kinds of fish.

One day last week, Smith’s boat, the Ethel S, hauled a little over a ton of white perchfromLakeErie, along with about 600 poundsofcatfish,300 pounds of white bass and 1,600 pounds of sheephead. The black plastic boxes of fish seemed to fill the deck,althoughSmith said it was actually a light catch.

Smith’s threemember crew that day included his wife, Lis Smith, whose father,DavidSegaard, is a retired fisherman. It also included Paul Leidorf, 68, who said he’s been on a boat since he was a baby.

“I’m supposed to be retired,” Leidorf said. “Joe needed a hand.”

The Ethel S pulled up to a Sandusky dock, and the fish boxes were loaded onto a trailer and hauled a couple blocks away to the Lake Fish Company, housed in a building at 1014 Water Street since 2001, when the two founders left Port Clinton Fisheries to start their own company.

At Lake Fish, workers waited for Smith’s fish with sturdy, waxed cardboard boxes and big tubs of ice.

A conveyor belt moved the fish to the boxes. Workers shoveled about 10 pounds of ice on the bottom of each box, then put about 60 pounds of fish in and covered the fish with about another 20 pounds of ice. The boxes were then sealed for shipment.

Fish in the boxes will last several days, but “we try to ship them within 24 hours,” Trent said.

Yellow perch and walleye are cleaned and turned into fillets for local consumption, but fish sent to other parts of the country usually are kept whole. Asian markets like to get whole fish because they can check the eyes and gills to verify the fish is fresh.

Lake Fish Company buys its walleye from Canadian fishermen; commercial fishermen in Ohio are banned from catching walleye.

They are allowed to catch yellow perch, but this year’s catch has been slashed by regulators after it was determined the yellow perch population has fallen. Smith said his quota was cut by about 40 percent, and he’s been scrambling to purchase some of the quota unused by other fishermen.

Last year, after several commercial fishermen caught violating fishing limits by state wildlife officers were convicted in court, commercial fishermen found themselves in the middle of controversy at the Ohio General Assembly. A bill in the legislature sought to abolish their industry by buying up all of the remaining commercial fishing licenses.

Currently, 14 license holders such as Smith hold 18 licenses, with some holding more than one license.

Supporters of the bill, including charter boat captains who make livings taking sports fishermen out on the lake, said the criminal convictions showed it was impossible to police the industry. They said getting rid of commercial fishingwouldclearthewayforexpansionofsports fishing at Lake Erie, which they argued would generate more jobs and help the economy.

Opponents said it would be unfair to put everyone in the commercial fishing industry out business because of the actions of a few. They also argued it was crazy for the government to put an entire industry out of business, particularly in Ohio, which has had high unemployment in recent years.

This year, abolition of the industry was off the table, but state Sen. Timothy Grendell, R-Chesterland, introduced Senate Bill 77. In its initial form, the bill tripled the fees paid by commercial fishermen and required them to put devices on their boats so state regulators can track their location on

computers.

The bill has been revamped and the provision raising the fees has been dropped, said Beth Vanderkooi, Grendell’s legislative aide.

The fees “are not going up at all,” she said. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources decided if the boatswillhavetrackingdevices,the cost of enforcement will go down, and fees won’t have to be raised to cover the cost of enforcement, she said.

The bill also retains provisions increasing penalties for commercial fishermen who break the law. For example, a felony conviction would result in a lifelong ban from the industry, she said.

The new bill, hammered out after meetings with sport fishermen, commercial fishermen and the ODNR, seems likely to pass and become law, Vanderkooi said.

Smith said he has tried to follow this year’s legislation affecting commercial fishermen, although he also has to worry about making a living.

“It’skindofhardtojugglepolitics and do your job at the same time,” he said.