'The lake left me. It's gone.'

Author: Dan Egan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Original Article

Dan Anderson shares a laugh with friends at the dock in Homer, Alaska



It's mid-April and the gray-haired fisherman and his gray-haired son are not headed out for just another day of hoisting nets from the depths of Lake Michigan. For decades their workday has always started before dawn. But today the men don't climb aboard their battered commercial fishing boat until noon, because they aren't hustling to get to their normal fishing grounds three hours out in the middle of the lake - a place that, from the view out the little round windows of the wheel house, is still as wild and lonely as any on the globe.

The men have always started their day wondering whether a load of fish is straining the nets that they set the day before. Today their compass doesn't point them toward any nets at all.

The boat's rumbling 855 Cummins diesel pushes them down the muddy Kinnickinnic River and under the Hoan Bridge.

This is the moment when their eyes normally train on the open waters ahead.

But today, the 52-year-old man notices his dad, Alvin, is glancing back.

I think this is probably going to be the last time I see Milwaukee from the water, 77-year-old Alvin Anderson says.

Yeah, his son, Dan, replies glumly.

Then Milwaukee's last working commercial fishing tug - the Alicia Rae - glides through the north gap of the Milwaukee Harbor breakwater.

And it is gone.

Today, for the first time since the 1800s, there are no commercial fishing boats operating out of Milwaukee.

The boats are gone because the fish are gone.

Our lake might appear from the shore as blue and beautiful as ever, but that's not the lake Dan Anderson sees through eyes creased and scorched from decades spent on the water and under the sun.

He sees a liquid desert.

Fishing for the past

It is impossible to fathom what's been lost since French fur trappers scratched a little village out of the forested Lake Michigan shoreline that in the last two centuries has mushroomed into home for some 1.7 million people.

This was once the wild, wooded Northwest, and the lake harbored one of the most spectacular freshwater fisheries in the world. Plump lake trout reigned atop a food web loaded with species such as perch, sturgeon, lake herring, whitefish and chubs.

It didn't take long for immigrant fishermen to figure out how to make a living off these fish.

By 1900, commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan were hauling in an average of 41 million pounds of fish annually. As the stocks began to decline, fishermen's efforts picked up.

By 1938, Wisconsin's commercial fishing operations were motorized and mechanized and generated jobs for more than 2,000 workers. They were dropping enough nets in state waters, mostly in Lake Michigan but some in Lake Superior, as well, to stretch from Milwaukee to the Eastern Seaboard, and back. And those nets were still pulling 14 million pounds of fish out of Lake Michigan a year.

The fish were iced, loaded on trucks and rolled to cities as far away as New York.

Back then, Milwaukee's Jones Island wasn't synonymous with sewage treatment; it was still a fishing village packed with ramshackle homes, weathered boats and immigrants from the Baltic Sea.

"It's easy to forget how much protein came into Milwaukee from Lake Michigan over the decades," says Milwaukee historian John Gurda. "Whether they were fried in local taverns or sold from door to door by the urban villagers of Jones Island, local fish were an essential component of the local diet for generations."

The historic harvest rates were unsustainable, but that's not the problem today.

"The decline of the (commercial) fishery going on right now in Lake Michigan and Huron doesn't have anything to do with overfishing," says David Lodge, a biologist and Great Lakes expert at the University of Notre Dame.

"Clearly, that was a major driver in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that's not what's going on now. Now it's changes in the food web that appear to be driven by invasive mussels."

The primary suspect is the quagga mussel, which arrived in the Great Lakes as a stowaway in the ballast tanks of freighters that carried them across the Atlantic. Still a rare find in Lake Michigan until just several years ago, the mollusks mysteriously and suddenly went viral.

Today they smother the bottom of the lake almost from shore to shore, and their numbers are estimated at 900 trillion.

Along the way they virtually have eliminated from the lake their better known cousins, the zebra mussels, which also arrived as hitchhikers aboard ocean freighters.

Each Junior Mint-size quagga can filter up to a liter of water per day, stripping away the plankton that for thousands of years directly and indirectly sustained the lake's native fish.

Much of that food supply has now been sucked to the lake bottom; for every pound of prey fish swimming in the lake today, there are an estimated three or four pounds of quaggas clustering on the lake bed.

"In the last five years, the base of the food web in Lake Michigan has changed more than any other time in the last thousand years," says Gary Fahnenstiel, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fahnenstiel calls the Andersons and other commercial fishermen "innocent bystanders" in this unprecedented ecological meltdown.

Others might call them victims.

"It's fair to say that the old food webs, upon which many fisheries were dependent, those food webs don't exist anymore," says Hugh MacIsaac, a professor of biology at the University of Windsor and director of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network. "And it seems to me that the people reliant on the old food webs have very insecure futures, simply because the old food webs don't exist anymore."

Dan and Alvin Anderson know they don't have a future at all, in terms of making a living off the lake.

So they hang on as tight as they can to the past.

The 8-year-old first mate

When Alvin and Dan left Milwaukee harbor to go fishing back in April, they headed north for Gills Rock at the tip of Door County knowing they would not bring the boat back to its Milwaukee slip along the gritty riverbank between the 1st St. and Kinnickinnic Ave. bridges.

Their plan was to spend the next few weeks off the Door Peninsula chasing whitefish, one of the last native stocks still healthy enough to be fished commercially.

They weren't out to make a killing; their goal was to simply spend a little more time together on their lake.

"We are doing the dad-son thing," says Dan. "If we make a little money, we make a little money."

Two weeks into the three-week expedition this spring, the two were making a little money.

Alvin is arthritic and on land looks all his 77 years as he shuffles toward the Alicia Rae.

Then he gets to the edge of the Gills Rock dock and leans toward the boat's side door.

"Let's, uh, rock and roll!" he says with a smirk after pocketing his corncob pipe.

Alvin grabs the top of the boat and slithers in like an eel.

This is his element.

Alvin was the first deckhand on the Alicia Rae, and the Alicia Rae was built in 1942.

That means Alvin started fishing when he was 8. Commercial fishing. It was his summer job.

A neighbor with a new boat looking for a bargain-rate crew arrived at Alvin's family orchard in northern Door County at just the right time. It was cherry picking season, something little Alvin loathed. He hated the heat, the sticky hands, the bugs.

"Like being in prison," he says.

Alvin wanted to be like his three older brothers, all of whom had jobs off the farm and on the water. So his parents, eager for some more outside income, set their second-grader free. The typical 8-year-old today isn't allowed to walk alone a few blocks to school. Alvin walked 2½ miles down gravel roads to the dock.

Then he climbed aboard the boat and sailed into the treacherous waters off the Door Peninsula, where the warmer Green Bay clashes with the colder Lake Michigan, an area called Death's Door for the number of ships sunk by the churning waves.

No. He did not wear a life preserver.

"I worked six days a week, for $5 a week," he says. "From 6 a.m. to 5:30."

Then he walked the 2½ miles back home, ate, slept, got up in the morning and did it again.

He was never late. He was never coddled: "I could do everything a regular man could do."

You can hear family pride swelling in the raspy voice of Alvin's oldest brother, Floyd, as he recalls how that neighbor turned his youngest brother from a tyke into first mate.

"He was younger than heck," says the 88-year-old Floyd, who lives in northern Wisconsin, near the Lake Superior shoreline.

"We worked hard, all of us."

Young Alvin worked summers and weekends for the neighbor until he finished eighth grade.

As the school year wound down, the teacher approached every graduating student, all half-dozen or so, and demanded details about their future.

Alvin had already been living it.

"He called everybody up and said: 'What are you going to do with your life?' " Alvin recalls. "I said, 'Be a fisherman.' And I never changed my mind."

Father-son reunion

It's barely dawn as the Alicia Rae pulls from the dock at Gills Rock. The lake surface is so glassy you can see into the eye sockets of a dead fish on the bottom of the harbor.

The scrawny carcass looks like it's in maybe 3 feet of water, but it's actually about 12 feet. The mussel invasion has turned the lake into some of the clearest freshwater on the planet.

Alvin remembers when on mornings like this there used to be a convoy steaming for the fishing grounds, and the water color was a broth-like green - the sign of a healthy Great Lake and, of course, the reason for Green Bay's name.

Today, there are no other boats in sight as they head south along spectacular bluffs that are now pocked with stately two- and three-story "cottages" all looking ghostly empty in early spring, a time of year when the waters are still frigid enough to incapacitate a person in a matter of minutes.

The lonesomeness is perfect for Dan and his dad.

Alvin was born on his family's kitchen floor at a time when Door County was more a rugged land scattered with immigrant families than a quaint escape for wealthier folks.

"There are a few old-timers who still know the reality of Door County," Alvin says as the Alicia Rae plows through 5-foot waves kicked up by the sudden arrival of 30-mph winds.

Alvin moved out of Door County soon after graduating from the eighth grade. He fished in Algoma and on Lake Superior before settling in Milwaukee in the 1960s.

His arthritic hands forced him to quit fishing full time more than a decade ago, but he got back on the water a few years back to help Dan recover from a shattered wrist and two broken vertebrae that he suffered in a 16-foot tumble from a ladder.

"I was a mess," says Dan. "I couldn't even hold a gallon of milk."

But Dan went fishing anyway, figuring the rocking and rolling of the boat would help him recover and rebuild the core muscles he'd lost from being out of commission for months.

Dan says his worried dad finally gave him a call: "He said, 'Son' - and now I don't hear that from Dad very often; it's very rare to hear that authoritative voice - 'Son, I know you ain't very good, and you know I'm about a quarter strength with my hands and all . . . but why don't you and me go out?' "

So they went fishing as therapy. And Dan's been taking his dad out for three or four weeks each spring ever since.

"What more could I ask for than being with my son," Alvin says over the rumble of the engine.

He's sitting in the wheelhouse, his gnarled hands lightly on the big captain's wheel, which doesn't really need his help anymore - it steers itself with the latest navigational wizardry. Alvin keeps his hands on it anyway.

Dan says the annual trips have given his dad a new vigor, a bounce. He says Alvin talks about this trip all year 'round.

In Alvin's 48-week off-season, he can be found toiling in his basement on Milwaukee's south side stitching tattered gill nets so everything will be perfect when Dan picks him up the next spring.

"He lives," says Dan, "to fish whitefish."

Mussel mess

This is not your normal father-son fishing trip. There is nothing contemplative or quiet about commercial fishing. The engine rumble is deafening, and there is constant metal-on-metal clatter when chains smack the steel interior as the nets are mechanically hoisted.

There is very little talk.

Alvin sports orange rubber overalls, a ski cap and yellow rubber gloves; he perches at the side door where the nets roll in.

He makes sure the yellow webbing of the nets winds smoothly around a spinning drum that spits fish onto a stainless steel table, where Dan and a crew member hired for the day hurl them into gray bins.

Whitefish numbers are still robust off Door County, but their average size has shrunk dramatically in the past decade. That's because their preferred food, a tiny shrimplike organism native to the lake, has virtually disappeared since the arrival of quagga and zebra mussels.

This has forced the whitefish to adapt. They're eating the invasive mussels, invasive round gobies, invasive smelt and invasive alewives.

The whitefish are doing what the Andersons are doing - whatever it takes to hang on. But Dan Anderson says they aren't the same fish they used to be.

"Look at that," Dan yells as the fish roll in. "You'd never get a whitefish long and skinny like that. Never. Never. Never."

The culprits causing the decline also show up in the nets with distressing regularity. The quaggas have forced fishermen who pride themselves on calloused hands to wear yellow dishwashing gloves to protect them from shells that shatter like shards from a fluorescent light tube.

Even with the gloves, their hands are sliced and stinging at the end of most days.

The odd non-targeted species of fish that turn up in the nets, such as walleye, are not kept. Dan grabs one and tries to throw it overboard. It hits Alvin in the nose and cheek before it bounces off and splashes in the water.

Alvin doesn't flinch, doesn't even cast a glance back at his son. And Dan doesn't say he's sorry.

The nets keep rolling in.

'People who didn't give up'

Alvin lives to fish.

Dan was born to fish.

Alvin was 23 years old and living in Algoma when he met the teenage girl who would soon become his wife, Sandra.

She was visiting her mom, who was working at a fish market, the first time she saw Alvin. She knew she wanted to marry him almost right away, even if it meant she'd have to drop out of high school because school district policy at that time prohibited married students.

"I said to my mom, you either let us get married or I'll have to get married," Sandra recalled on a day not long after Dan and Alvin had returned to Milwaukee from their fishing trip. "So she let us get married."

After the wedding, Alvin didn't have the money to hire a crew member. So he made Sandra his first mate. Then, when Dan came along 11 months later, they didn't have money to hire a baby sitter.

So Dan became his second mate.

"Mom didn't even have her six-week checkup when they were laying me in one of these net boxes," says Dan.

Sandra just shrugs.

"That was the best place to bring a baby because (boats) are always rocking," she says. "I was afraid at first because of the noise of the engine, but it didn't seem to bother him."

No. He didn't wear a life preserver.

He was so little, his mother says, she didn't have to worry about him wandering off.

By the time Dan was 7 years old, he was steering the family boat through congested areas like the Sturgeon Bay canal, while mom and dad toiled below deck.

"He'd steer with his feet," Alvin says. "Just his eyeballs would stick out of the hatch."

Dan went to technical high school in Milwaukee, learned to weld and did shift work for a while in the city.

But by his early 20s, he was back on the water full time with his dad, and eventually he was out on his own.

Dan never got rich, but he made a decent living, enough to buy a couple of fishing boats and staff them with crews. He bought a home for his wife and three kids. He became part owner of a bar and then a marina on the Kinnickinnic River.

Then just a few years ago, the chubs at the center of his business disappeared, and he started scrambling to make ends meet.

He'd fish in Door County, on Lake Superior and would take odd jobs doing fishery work for the federal government. His annual summer trips to Alaska to chase salmon became increasingly necessary to make ends meet.

His uncle Floyd, who himself followed the fish from Door County to Milwaukee and finally up to Lake Superior, can appreciate what Dan was chasing. He and his three little brothers did the same thing.

"I guess he takes after us," Floyd says.

"We loved the water and we loved fishing, and we were people who didn't give up."

Collapse ripples ashore

Jeff Ewig stands in a blue smock behind the counter of Ewig Brothers Fish Company in Port Washington with a sign that says:

"We are out of smoked chubs for the season. The soonest they would again be available is late next winter, if we can find a new supplier."

The 56-year-old's roots stretch straight back to Jones Island, where his ancestors arrived in the 1880s to fish.

Today Ewig and his son hang on to the family fish-smoking wholesale and retail operation any way they can, selling Alaskan halibut, farmed South American salmon, lobster tails, haddock, cod and tilapia, as well as some Great Lakes smoked fish, often from Lake Superior.

But their specialty used to be Lake Michigan chubs. He was still getting calls daily this past spring wondering if he had any. He was weary of delivering the bad news.

"Angry" is the word he picks to describe what has happened to his lake - and his business.

"If this was a BP oil spill, I'd have a couple of options to sue, but I don't," he says. "Dan doesn't. Leslie Schwarz doesn't."

Leslie Schwarz Winter manages Schwarz Fish Company in Sheboygan. Her family has been in the wholesale business for 99 years.

"It's disappointing. . . . It's even disgusting, what's been done to Lake Michigan," she says.

"We have the world's largest supply of freshwater here, and nobody was keeping tabs on it. And now it's too late."

It's April, and she frets that she is about to smoke her last Lake Michigan chub. The Sheboygan fisherman she buys them from hauled in a scant 35 pounds on his last trip out this spring.

"He didn't even pay for his fuel idling at the docks," she says.

Winter pulls out her record book to see what the guy hauled this very week in the year 2000. It was 1,341 pounds.

That fisherman, Mark Nelson, left Wisconsin this spring for a few months to pilot a tugboat on Lake Erie. He also did some research netting for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources earlier this year with nets designed to catch young chubs - there were loads of the little guys, he said.

The question is whether they'll get a chance to grow up

Annual bottom trawl surveys of the lake, which started in 1973, show that the lake's chub population has ticked up a bit in the past couple of years, but it is still less than 10% of its average for the years between 1973-2004.

Chub and whitefish numbers have had big peaks and valleys over the past century, but Bill Horns, the DNR's Great Lakes fisheries boss, isn't about to say everything is going to be OK

"The theme of Lake Michigan is change, right? So who's to say there won't be another change that could someday help the fishermen," he says.

"I won't make that prediction. It's possible, but maybe not very likely."

Giving up

Alvin and Sandra are on a couch drinking coffee, and Dan is sipping tea after one of their last days on the water in Door County.

This is as close to home as these three can get; they are renting a cottage that sits on the very farm where Alvin and his siblings were born. The property is owned by an Illinois couple now.

The three talk about Alvin's one-room schoolhouse and how all the roads used to be gravel and how poor everyone used to be. Alvin gets misty-eyed when he talks about how he and Dan found the ruins of the family's maple syrup cooker back in the woods a few years ago - around the time they started fishing together again.

The gray-haired fisherman and his gray-haired son talk about going back to look at the syrup cooker one more time. But a wet April has turned the property out back into a marsh. So talk turns to the future instead.

Nobody in the room wants to talk about this.

Dan is planning to move his wife and three kids - the oldest will be a freshman in high school this fall - to Alaska in the coming months.

He's got a boat in Alaska, and after years of jetting up there for several weeks each summer he is ready to make the place home. He says this is the only choice he has because he can catch more fish in one day in Alaska than he can catch all winter off Milwaukee.

He promises to come back each spring to fish for a few weeks off Door County with his dad.

His mom starts to cry.

"I'm not leaving this lake," Dan says. "The lake left me. It's gone."

For past stories on invasive species and the health of the Great Lakes, go to