On patrol with the DNR’s Great Lakes Enforcement Unit
MARQUETTE—The day begins hours before sunrise.
Gear, food and water are packed.
Preferably leaving the dock by 4 a.m., conservation officers in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Great Lakes Enforcement Unit are ready to tackle the day, often logging 16-hour shifts, traveling up to 150 miles in the patrol vessel they refer to as their “office.”
Conservation officers with the unit enforce state rules and laws regulating state- and tribal-licensed commercial anglers. The officers are also responsible for monitoring commercial fish wholesale operations that occur on land.
Coming from the ranks within the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division, conservation officers in the unit acquire additional skills and training related to their job function.
“Our job is to protect the resource,” said Cpl. Marvin Gerlach, a conservation officer with the unit. “We want every child to have the same experience that their parents or grandparents were able to have – for young anglers to have the rush of excitement when they catch their first big fish.
“Without regulations, anyone could overfish. We want to protect fish stocks to ensure the future of the commercial fishing industry and the sport.”
Conservation officer responsibilities in patrolling the commercial fishing industry include inspecting nets, docked vessels and commercial fish facilities and enforcing laws against illegal fishing activity involving unlawful gear, fishing out of season, the illegal taking of species and sizes, overharvesting fish and aquatic invasive species.
Additionally, conservation officers must be prepared to manage any kind of situation that occurs on the water, keeping in mind that they may be miles from shore.
A family tradition
Thousands of commercial fishing licenses used to represent the employment of tens of thousands of individuals active in Michigan’s commercial fishing industry.
“In 1967, approximately 400 fishers grossed $10,000-$12,000 per year,” said Gerlach, a veteran conservation officer with more than 32 years of experience. “By 1977, anglers fishing under roughly 140 commercial fishing licenses were grossing $70,000 per year, each.”
In 2017, the total value of the take for state-licensed commercial fishers was $4 million.
Today, there are 49 state commercial fishing licenses, which tend to be passed down within longtime commercial fishing families, generation to generation. New commercial fishing licenses are no longer issued.
Protecting the resource
Seth Herbst, a DNR aquatic species and regulatory affairs unit manager, provided some historical context of the industry.