Barb LaVigne owns the Angry Trout, on the Grand Marais harbor. She loves to serve regional specialties. She wishes she could serve local lake trout.
"We get herring from local fishermen, but the lake trout have to come from farther away," she says. "And the lake trout is the number one thing ordered on the menu."
The lake trout has to come from farther up the shore, where members of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians harvest lake trout. Or it might come from across the lake in Wisconsin. Or even Michigan or Ontario. But not from Minnesota. Minnesota doesn't allow commercial harvest of lake trout.
The North Shore had a vibrant commercial fishery until the 1950s. Maybe too vibrant, since most experts blame over-harvesting for at least part of the crash that happened back then. But that's also when the parasitic sea lamprey invaded the Great Lakes and virtually wiped out the lake trout and other species.
Since then, the states and the federal government have worked hard to control the lamprey and bring back the lake trout.
A couple of years ago the DNR decided the trout were doing so well, they could quit stocking them -- at least in the northern end of Lake Superior.
Harley Toftey is a third-generation commercial fisherman in Grand Marais. He makes a living fishing mostly for herring. He remembers 1962, when the DNR called a halt to commercial and recreational fishing for lake trout. He says the agency promised back then that the commercial fishermen would get first crack at the fish, if and when they came back.
“The lake trout is the number one thing ordered on the menu."Barb LaVigne, owner, Angry Trout Cafe
"The whole area of the North Shore wanted to keep this for the cultural heritage," he says. "And we just feel that the people of Minnesota, the people who can't go out in sport fishing boats, and the ones that can't afford a charter or anything, that they deserve some of that resource too."
Toftey says sport anglers now take as many as 20,000 lake trout each year.
The DNR does let a few commercial fishermen catch a handful of trout, as part of an assessment program. The fishermen weigh and measure them and report the data to the DNR, then sell the fish to restaurants and stores.
Toftey and other commercial fishermen support a proposal to expand the assessment program.
The catch could rise from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to about 5,000.
That plan was developed by various stakeholders and approved by the regional fisheries director.
But when it went to the DNR Commissioner's office in St. Paul for approval, it was nixed. Fisheries Supervisor Ron Payer says it's about economics. He says, nothing against commercial fishermen, but their nets are a lot more efficient than anglers' hooks and lines.
"There's an opportunity to release those, there's a chance for those fish to be harvested again, and there's certainly a chance for those fish to grow to a fairly large size similar to what you might see around Isle Royale," Payer says.
In fact, the DNR wrote a bill that would eliminate commercial harvest of lake trout on Lake Superior. It was the logical next step after the agency got rid of commercial fishing on Minnesota's inland lakes.
But Payer says the agency is open to new direction from the legislature.
Representative David Dill, Democrat from Orr, says he'll introduce the DNR's bill, but he plans to substitute key language from that management plan that allows expansion of the assessment netting.
"I don't think the DNR wants to talk 'commercial netting,' because they don't want people to think we have commercial netting in other lakes of other fisheries," Dill says.
Representative Dill is confident the proposal to expand commercial fishing will pass in the House. A similar measure will be offered in the Senate by Senator Tom Bakk of Cook.