Only two commercial fishing families left in Muskegon

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Points North
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Only two commercial fishing families left in Muskegon

Postby Points North » Mon Apr 25, 2016 12:53 am

Only two commercial fishing families left in Muskegon

Susan Harrison Wolffis | Muskegon Chronicle By Susan Harrison Wolffis | Muskegon Chronicle
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For 85 years, the Petersens of Muskegon have fished the waters of Lake Michigan.

It is more than family tradition. For fathers and sons, cousins and brothers — four generations running — fishing has been the Petersen family’s livelihood.

“Obviously, we’re in this for the long haul,” says Eric Petersen, a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. “This is who we are. Petersen’s Fisheries. Petersens.”


It all started in 1926 when the late Ben Petersen, a farmer from Fountain in Mason County moved to Muskegon to pursue his true love: fishing.

Next in line is Kenneth Petersen, whom everyone calls “Gootz,” a Norwegian nickname given to the youngest of his generation.

At 82, “Gootz” still shows up at the docks to help unload that day’s catch when the boats come in — and catch up on the day’s news.

The third generation is Gootz’s boys: Bill Petersen, 62; Alan Petersen, 61; and Chris Petersen, 45. Bill Petersen, who no longer goes out on the lake, and Alan Petersen, who does, own Petersen Fisheries.


And there is the fourth generation: Eric Petersen, 35, Bill Petersen’s son; and Joel Petersen, 31, Alan Petersen’s son.

“I love talking about this,” Eric Petersen says. “When people hear what we do for a living, they want to know all about it.”

About 35 fishing families remain in Michigan

Once, Muskegon Lake was home to at least a dozen commercial fishermen — many of them working as families.

Now, only two local families remain in the business: the Petersens and their next-door neighbors on the lake in Muskegon’s Bluffton neighborhood, Paul and David Jensen, whose last name also is synonymous with commercial fishing.

About 35 commercial fishing families remain in Michigan. Like the Petersens and Jensens, many have weathered changes over the years that have altered the industry — from changes in the lake to the laws governing commercial fishing.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, the sea lamprey — an early invasive species — decimated the lake trout population. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources turned its collective attention to the sports fishing industry, planting salmon into the fresh waters.

The Native American Treaty Rights opened debate that ended in court over who had commercial fishing rights in the Great Lakes. Today, there is “limited entry" in the industry, meaning no more commercial fishing licenses will be issued.


The Petersens are licensed to fish Great Lakes whitefish with trap nets, an intricate system of nets and boxes, 11 months out of the year.

No fishing is allowed in November while the whitefish spawn. But “realistically,” Joel and Eric Petersen say, they can only fish seven and a half months out of the year because of Muskegon’s rough winters.

In wintertime, the Petersens repair their equipment.

“There’s always something to do until we can get back out on the lake,” Eric Petersen says.

In 2011, the Petersens are licensed to catch 303,000 pounds of whitefish. The Jensens’ quota is 200,000 pounds.

Their days are ruled by the ever-challenging weather and the habits of the whitefish, which love cold water and, especially this time of year, head for the depths of Lake Michigan. Petersen Fisheries is allowed to fish 150 feet deep.

“You never know what you’re going to find, day to day,” Joel Petersen says.

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