WMU News

New book records fishing rights debates

Oct. 14, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- To understand the story, you need to understand the history.

It's a good rule to remember, especially when trying to tackle the complicated, often heated history of fishing rights on Lake Michigan, one of the world's largest freshwater fisheries. With the help of five undergraduate students and one graduate student, two Western Michigan University professors have published "Fish for All," a comprehensive oral history of the various viewpoints held by the lake's largest economic stakeholders and harvesters of the lake's fish.

The book which received the Award of Merit from the Historical Society of Michigan, was the culminating project of a $198,720 grant from the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust and completed under the auspices of the Great Lakes Center for Maritime Studies, a partnership between WMU and the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Mich.

"There are intense debates that wage all over the globe regarding the use of natural resources, whether it's about using timber, water, or in this case, fish," says Dr. Michael Chiarappa, associate professor of history and environmental studies and the book's co-author. "Included in this debate are all these groups that feel they have a stake in the resource. Our hope is that this book brings to life, not just what is, at times, a highly contentious dialogue, but also a dialogue that needs to be understood."

The specific groups "Fish for All" examines include Native American tribes, commercial fisherman, sport fisherman, and the governmental agencies that regulate and determine jurisdiction over Lake Michigan's fish.

"We didn't have the sense that this book was going to change anybody's mind, but it gives the historical perspective as to why these different groups feel the way they do," says Dr. Kristin Szylvian, associate professor of history the book's other co-author.

Though fish happen to be at the center of the book, Chiarappa feels its importance to readers can be found in the understanding the book offers of various groups' viewpoints of how natural resources should be used.

"A cultural template or tradition informs how people value and use natural resources," he says. "This book is for people to see why groups approach the problem of fishing in a particular way.

Often times with a natural resource-related problem, there is a contentious dialogue that exists, but it's never really written down."

To understand the diverse opinions of those who wish to lay claim to the lake's fishing rights, no better sources could have been used than the stakeholders themselves.

"Each of the groups we interviewed relied on their history to inform their opinions. They can't escape it," Chiarappa notes. "Whether in a bar, a living room or at a government meeting, people's opinions on how the fish need to be managed are influenced by their pasts."

And what level of consideration is given to the past is something that is essential for future fishery management practices, the authors believe.

"If you think we can develop successful public policy and not take into consideration these cultural mindsets and historical perspectives, the policies will end up being flawed," says Szylvian.

Of the 40 oral histories contained in "Fish for All," Szylvian found there was a consensus on one point among the various groups interviewed.

"Despite the differences, and goodness knows they are tremendous, everyone we talked to had such deep admiration for the lake," she says. "They cared so much and recognized the essential role that history plays in the management of the lake's natural resources."

"Fish for All" was published by the Michigan State University Press and is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com booksellers for $24.95 in paperback or $49.95 in cloth cover.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

WMU News
Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400