Ohio's commercial fishermen work under a very large number of regulations, conceived and written by the Division of Wildlife of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and codified by the Ohio General Assembly (the State Legislature). There are regulations on the length of the fishing season for each of the three (now two) fishing techniques; on the possibility (which is now very slim) of obtaining a new commercial fishing license or transferring an existing one to another individual; on areas of the Lake which may not be fished at all or only at certain times of the season; on the total length of nets per license; on the maximum dimensions of individual nets; on proper identification of nets; on the size of mesh in nets; on the times of day when fishing is allowed; on the species that can legally be taken; and on the minimum size of legal species. These regulations change from time to time, of course, in response to changes documented by the Wildlife Division's biologists, and/or in response to more or less direct political pressure from sport fishing or other related interests.
These regulations are enforced through detailed records that fishermen and fish house operators are required to maintain and submit, and, more directly, by unannounced spot checks of any part of a fishing operation by ODW enforcement officers, who are empowered to confiscate illegal catches and to arrest or issue citations to fishermen who break regulations.
To commercial fishermen, the most crucial short-term regulations are those concerning mesh size, since an increase in the means that entire net stocks become useless overnight and must be replaced at high cost; and those concerning fish size limits, since an increase in the minimum size for one or move species can mean wasted time throwing back undersized fish (remember the fuel/fish equation), and can also make existing nets unusable. The most problematic long-term regulations are those concerning legal species. Over the past twenty-five years, and especially since the Lake Erie "mercury scare," as fishermen call it, of the early 1970’s, the number of permissable species has been severely reduced. A major loss occurred in 1972, when commercial fishermen were prohibited from taking walleye, the most popular sport fish in the Lake, often sold under the name of “pickerel” at fish markets and seafood restaurants all along the Lake and throughout the region. It is particularly irksome to commercial fishermen that the pickerel on Ohio restaurant tables be imported at high cost from Canada, on whose side of Lake Erie the fish can be caught commercially. "I never saw a line drawn on the Lake,” said more than one fisherman. Whatever side of this controversy you take, it is clear that commercial fishermen have been lifet with fewer species to take, many of which are less desirable for human consumption and thus have a lower wholesale value—sheephead, gizzard shad, buffalo, suckers—“Junk fish,” as they are locally known.
Over the past decades, sport fishing has grown to be a substantial business along the Lake, attested to by the increasing number of marinas, hotels, restaurants and summertime developments along the shoreline. The economic value of sport fishing is considerable, and the sport fishery is a business that the State of Ohio does not want to jeopardize. At the same time, it should be news to no one that commercial fishermen in general are either romanticized as hardy, individualistic "hunters and entrepreneurs” going one-on-one with nature in a way that those who work in glass or ivory towers can only dimply imagine, or, perhaps more frequently, as poor, uneducated idlers and heavy drinkers who contribute to the general ill-being of the shabby communities which they inhabit. As Janet Gilmore, who has studied Oregon’s commercial fisheries, has pointed out, the first, positive stereotype conforms to the esoteric image commercial fisherman like, at least, to hold of themselves and the second, negative stereotype conforms to the exoteric image outsiders (including many Ohio sport fishermen) hold of commercial fishermen. This negative stereotype also conforms to the image commercial fishermen, with some justification, think outsiders hold of them.
Interview Transcript Excerpt
Tim Lloyd: Yes, and it's time taken away from bringing fish on the boat. Seems like it's all a pretty complicated situation. I mean the impression I get over the past few days from talking to the commercial guys is that they regard the sports fisherman in general, and that's the problem – there’s probably two groups that don't talk to each other too much basically, but regard sports fishermen as a bunch of rich guys who can get stuff done in Columbus that benefit themselves. We haven't talked to any sports fishermen yet. So they may have a.
Carl Baker: Whenever you got two groups vying for the same resource, you're bound to have a conflict of interest, especially where they figure like the zero sum. If this guy gets this fish, I’m not gonna get it, rather than being more or less unlimited, and there's enough fish for everybody. If there is a limited supply, depending on what fishery you're talking about, that resource, our basic bottom line is to maintain and improve the resource. That's basically our responsibility, and the user groups, that's the proof of the pudding. If the user groups have enough to utilize, then we've done a good job. And oftentime, there is much, much conflict on how that is split up. As you say, there is confrontations like many times two bull dogs in a pit.
For more images of the rest of the collection, visit the image gallery and click the Lake Erie Fishermen box on the right side of the page.