The nationwide shutdown was especially ill-timed for fishers in the Great Lakes.
Many deal in lake whitefish, a species that dwells in cold waters. The first window to catch these fish falls after the ice melts, before the water warms up — just when the pandemic began to overwhelm the nation.
“We had reports of commercial fishermen in Michigan who had a catch with absolutely nowhere to sell it,” says Amber Petersen, owner of The Fish Monger’s Wife, a fish market based in Muskegon.
“The entire commercial fishery had started to collapse,” adds Whitney Gravelle, tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community. “Without a market to sell their product to, they were basically stranded.”
Luckily, there was a plan in place to help commercial fishers and charter boats. The COVID relief package, passed by Congress in March, specifically set aside $300 million to bolster the struggling industry, which accounts for $7 billion annually in the Great Lakes.
But when it came time to distribute that funding, most of the Great Lakes states were left out altogether. That came as a shock to many fishers.
“Right up until the final hour, a lot of the Great Lakes fishery participants thought that they were going to be included,” says Gravelle.
Why the Great Lakes were left out
The reason the federal funding skipped over Great Lakes fisheries has to do with the agency controlling the distribution of the aid — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. While NOAA has jurisdiction over federal waters, which start a few miles offshore in places like the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific coast, the Great Lakes are entirely managed by states.
“NOAA was saying that they do not have jurisdiction over inland bodies of water. They then did not have jurisdiction to provide relief to the Great Lakes fishery,” explains Gravelle.
Some disagree with this assessment.
“You don’t have to have management authority to distribute aid to people who need it,” says Marc Gaden, communications director of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “There’s no logical reason why that should be the case.”
NOAA did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
A blow for tribal fishers
For tribal fishers especially, this decision has been devastating. Commercial fishing is a right guaranteed under treaties with the federal government.
“It was kind of a double slap in the face,” says Gravelle. “Why would you not support that treaty right with federal assistance?”
And many tribal commercial fisherman don’t qualify for other assistance programs, like loans from the small business administration or the Paycheck Protection Program, explains Richard Peterson, Chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, in northern Wisconsin.
“The commercial fishermen got nothing — they couldn't even get unemployment,” Chairman Peterson says. That’s left many fishers in his community with few options. “I’ve seen one of them cutting grass.”
Will Great Lakes fisheries ever see federal aid?
Members of Congress are lobbying for the Great Lakes fishery to be included in the next round of relief funding. Representatives from both parties have sent letters to Congressional leaders and federal agencies advocating for the region.
“We want to make sure that they get the same attention as the other coasts,” says Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, co-chair of the Great Lakes Task Force.
But the latest attempt at pandemic relief legislation is at a standstill. Right now, Congressional leaders are just trying to avoid a government shutdown in October.
So no one is holding their breath for a new round of federal relief money. Petersen, of the Fisher Monger’s Wife, says her hopes lie in the water.
“I don’t know a family whose not going, ‘Oh god we hope that fall fishery is good, we hope that fall fishery is good,’” she says.
Once the water cools down again in the fall, whitefish are easier to catch. Then, fishers will have another season to make up some of the money lost this spring — an estimated $50 million, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
But if large buyers close again because of another spike in COVID-19 cases, or if there just isn’t a good catch this year, Great Lakes fishers are in big trouble.
“That will be the end financially for some people,” Petersen says.