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Duluth, Minn. — About a half mile off shore from Knife River, Steve Dahl guides his 18-foot aluminum boat to his gill net. He hauls the net up from where it's anchored, 45 feet below the waves. A few feet at a time, the net offers up its catch - slender silver herring caught by the gills.
"The mesh actually has a little bit of flex to it," Dahl says. "That's why I can squeeze them out. One that's too big or fat, you have to back it out, so you don't harm the flesh."
The openings in the net are 2-3/4 inches square - just right to catch herring. Too small for lake trout. He's not allowed to catch lake trout anyway. Dahl says most of the lake trout just bounce off the net.
When the net is empty, about 40 herring lie in a tub in the bottom of the boat. They're a little more than a foot long. Most of them weigh less than a pound.
Dahl is working hard for these fish.
It's probably 45 degrees, and the wind is gusting up to 25 miles an hour. Dahl says sometimes the current is so strong, he can't pull the net up out of the water. Sometimes there are no fish in the net. And of course, he can't fish when the lake is frozen.
But he loves this life.
"I get to be outside all the time, my own boss," he says. "I get to catch the fish, clean the fish, market the fish, deliver the fish. Keep my own books, maintain my outboards, keep up my boats. It's great fun."
Steve Dahl sells his catch to restaurants and fish houses between Duluth and Two Harbors. He makes his living this way. He says he doesn't make a lot of money, but it's a good life.
He says the money would be better if he were allowed to fish for lake trout.
Dahl figures he'd be able to make several thousand dollars more a year if he could catch even just a few hundred.
"That's all we're asking for, is to be able to supply the local restaurants through the peak tourist season," says Dahl.
Over-fishing and the invasive sea lamprey in the 1960s and 1970s almost wiped out lake trout. The lamprey are under control now, and decades of stocking lake trout have brought the population back up. People who fish for sport have been catching more and more lake trout. Last year, they caught 15,000 fish. But so far the Minnesota DNR has not allowed commercial fishermen to go after them.
Tim Jezierski has been sport fishing on Lake Superior for thirty years. He says the commercial fishermen are entitled to a share of the trout. But he's got a problem with the nets they use.
"We've got a diverse fishery on the lake of steelhead, and different kinds of salmon," he says. "They could catch a lot of these other fish, and gill nets usually kill a fish. And I don't know what you do about these other fish. I mean, how does the lake trout know to go into the net, where the salmon or rainbow or brown does not know to go into the net?"
But different fish usually swim in different depths of water, and commercial fishermen say they could lay their nets on the bottom and avoid catching salmon or other sport fish.
Wisconsin and Ontario allow limited commercial fishing of lake trout on Lake Superior; Michigan does not.
Don Schreiner manages the Lake Superior fishery for the Minnesota DNR. He says restoring the lake trout population is taking a long time, but commercial fishermen could be allowed a share of the fish someday.
"Right now we're pretty cautious," he says. "We've just started pulling back on stocking and it seems a little premature to start thinking about opening the door for commercial fisheries."
Next year, Schreiner plans to create a new ten-year plan for the fish in Lake Superior. He says during the planning process, everyone will be able to have their say. But sport anglers far outnumber the two dozen or so commercial fishermen on the North Shore. So they'll need to find allies in their claim on lake trout.
Paul Bergman is likely to speak up. He owns the Vanilla Bean Bakery & Café in Two Harbors. He buys herring from Steve Dahl, and fries it in a light batter. He says half his customers order fish, and they love it when it's locally caught.
"People really do come up here for the native fish on the North Shore," Bergman says. "We're getting so many more repeat customers from the Cities. More and more are asking for the fish."
Bergman puts a sign in the window when he has fresh herring, and he says it pulls people in. He'd like to be able to do the same with lake trout.