Albert LaBlance, a tribal commercial fishing captain, was on his boat at 6:00 in the morning. The deep blue Lake Huron was flat, and there were no waves in sight. As Albert put his huge white nets in the water, the sun began peeking out from the horizon, making the sky light up with hot pink. As he pulled the nets up, light brown lake trout flopped on the deck. He got about 600 pounds of lake trout and 100 pounds of whitefish. It was a good day. Around noon fishing was done, and it was time to return to the harbor to get the fish packed up for the market. All the fish he caught went to the Kings Fishery in Moran, Michigan.
After delivering the fish, he mended his nets so there would be no problems for the next day. Albert finishes everything at roughly 6:00 at night, and he does this six or seven days a week. His season starts the last week of April and he fishes until November 6th. From November 6th through November 29th he has to stop fishing because whitefish spawning happens. Fishing resumes and continues until January 15th due to the lake freezing. In a year he tries to fish for at least 150 days and catch about 100,000 pounds of fish.
When Albert first became a commercial fisherman in Michigan, 90% of all the fish he caught were whitefish, but now 99% are lake trout. Albert says that the fishery has changed much more in the last 25 years than it has in the last 500 because the whitefish population has depleted drastically. One reason for this is because invasive mussels are eating phytoplankton (plant plankton), and important food for diporeia. Diporeia are a tiny bottom-dwelling invertebrate, and serve as a key food source for whitefish. With diminished food, whitefish populations declined in health and did not grow as fast. This was making the whitefish super skinny, and their meat turned white and it wasn’t good to eat anymore. He catches mainly lake trout now due to diminishing whitefish catches.
Albert has kept his 160 year family fishing tradition alive. His family started tribally fishing as native Michigan Chippewa in the 1860s. When Albert was about ten years old, he started helping his dad on the boat with his eight brothers and two sisters. Everyone wanted to become commercial fishermen when they were older, except for him and one of his brothers. But after Albert graduated in 1973 he decided to become a fisherman and worked alongside his dad. None of his other siblings became fishermen except for his brother who didn't want to when he was younger. Then regulations put his dad out of business here in Michigan, so they moved to Canada. This is where Albert’s career started as a fisherman. He fished with his dad until 1999, when he moved back to Michigan to start his own business. Albert is the only one in his family that still fishes today. But this family tradition may sadly come to an end because Albert is getting older and can't do the things he use to, and his son is not interested in becoming a fisherman.
Thank you to Albert and the whole Lablance family for being a part of the northern Michigan fishing community.
Story written by Madison Erickson, Alpena High School - Science in the Sanctuary 2019
Resources: (Albert LaBlance, personal communication, May 28, 2019)