Foreword by Rhys Kuzdas, Archivist of the DCMM

               This editions article is a two-part excerpt composed mainly the upcoming book Faces of A Fish Empire: A Visual History of the Empire Fish Company and the Decline of Commercial Fishing in Wisconsin.  The material in this book also composes the main subject matter of a new exhibit coming to the DCMM in July of 2018.  The exhibit Faces of a Fish Empire traces the multigenerational history of the Empire Fish company of Milwaukee, WI and the wider history of commercial fishing in Lake Michigan including Door County.  The decline of commercial fishing, and the new rising threats to recreational fishing, are intricately tied to the health of the Great Lakes.  As you will read, one of the greatest reoccurring threats has been that of invasive species which have had the capacity to do near immeasurable damage to both commercial and ecological wellbeing of our marine resources.  The second part will be in the Winter 2017 edition of the Maritimes.

Faces of a Fish Empire, Chapter 7 (Michael Timm) – “Commercial Fishing in Milwaukee and Wisconsin: A Century of Decline” 

By every measure, the story of Wisconsin’s commercial fishing industry over the past century has been one of decline. Ecological shocks triggered by invasive species and overfishing have contributed to the reduction in exploitable freshwater fish stocks. That has meant less fish for fishermen to catch. Globalized trade and shifting consumer demand have also played a role. Rapid transport of food from outside the region, the industrialization of food businesses, and the cultural acceptance of processed food, combined with technological improvements in food storage and transport, have changed what is possible and expected.

Much as the ecosystem dynamics of the lake overturned, so too has the economic landscape transformed in ways that challenged the profitability of small-scale, labor-intensive commercial fishing operations — historically multigenerational family-owned businesses — even if the fish stocks they depended on had remained unaffected.

Still, the story includes periods of robust economic involvement in fishing. At the height of the Great Depression, Milwaukee counted over 50 business entities responsible for connecting fresh fish from Lake Michigan to the consumer’s plate. But by the 1950s, there were less than half as many. By 2000, there were only 2. In 2011, the last commercial fisherman left Milwaukee.

Up the Lake Michigan coast, the story has been similar. The past 50 years have witnessed a consistent fall-off in commercial fishing licenses. In 2017, commercial fishermen still operate out of Door County, but only 52 commercial licenses were issued for the state, compared with over 200 in the 1970s. An era has long since ended. 

Fate of the Friday Night Fish Fry

To attract patrons during Prohibition when alcohol sales were legally barred, the story goes that Milwaukee taverns offered free fish as an enticement. Whether patrons also then enjoyed the flow of fermented beverages was between them and their bartender, but we do know that yellow perch was one of the fish typically served on what became a Friday-night tradition in predominantly Catholic Milwaukee. (Fish provided the protein alternative since abstinence required Catholics to refrain from eating meat on Fridays.)

The Lake Michigan catch totals for perch spiked during intensive harvesting in the 1960s to serve this demand, though the perch harvest crashed along with the rise of the alewives in the late 1960s. Perch recovered but never to their historic heights. Then in the 1990s, the population took a hit believed to be related to the massive filter feeding of invasive mussels. Fishing was restricted and the health of each generation of perch monitored closely.

After a rough decade, seine-net surveys in 2015 off Racine revealed an encouragingly strong class of young perch, so the jury is still out on the fate of yellow perch in Lake Michigan. The species enjoys such a cultural and economic appeal that special strains of perch are being bred in aquaculture facilities at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.

Sea Lamprey Story: Vampiric Invader Dethrones Lake Trout

Lake trout reigned as the king of the Lake Michigan food web before intensive fishing and the invasion of the sea lamprey, an ancient parasite that sucks the vital fluids out of this freshwater fish. Many fishermen marked 1946 as the end of the era of lake trout.

Alewife Story: Billions of Tiny Saltwater Fish Disrupt System

Sea lamprey decimated lake trout populations in the 1940s. Next came another invasive species: the alewife. Without the trout to eat it and keep its numbers in check, this small saltwater herring proliferated in the Great Lakes. Alewives metabolized and reproduced rapidly — and when they died, they washed up on shore in the billions. Bulldozers cleared the rotting fish from closed beaches. Many people still remember the stench.

Invasive alewives claim a dubious legacy: more alewives by weight were caught in Lake Michigan than any other commercial fish species from 1950 to 2000. In the late 1950s, a few businesses saw opportunity in converting this ecological nuisance into a profitable commodity. (The alewives were ultimately pulverized into fish meal for animal feed and fertilizer.) Fishing for alewives soon became a capital-intensive, industrial-scale operation. Fishermen trawled the lake to catch alewives instead of setting traditional pound or gill nets. Trawlers fished for days at a time, scooping the lake for hundreds of thousands of pounds of the slippery silvery-white fish per trip. These hauls raked in many millions of pounds per year.

The volume of harvests was stupefying, but firms found managing fluctuating supply with steady demand a challenge. As an example, Milwaukee’s Miller Fisheries opened its own alewife processing plant to make fish meal. But in 1965, a court ordered the plant closed due to neighbors complaining about the smell. In 1966, it declared bankruptcy.

Salmon Story: Stocked Fish Eat Alewives, Become Prime Sport Fish

Salmon stocked to provide a thrill for sport anglers marked the beginning of the end for the Great Lakes commercial fishing industry. When fisheries manager Howard Tanner planted Pacific coho salmon in Lake Michigan in 1966, he unleashed a sport fish into a system that was reeling from the loss of its top predator (the lake trout) and overrun by invasive alewives. The salmon feasted on the alewives, though did not completely hold them in check. Within a few years, however, a multibillion-dollar sport fishing industry bloomed, propped up by agency stocking of salmon.

At the same time, agencies placed restrictions on commercial fishermen in hopes of allowing native fish populations to rebound. This dynamic caused tension between commercial and sport fishermen and managers. (And, in the 1990s, Wisconsin actually closed its commercial alewife fishery out of concern for the health of its salmon sport fishery.) A review of the fish harvested from the past decade in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan shows the continued significance of non-native sport fish. While lake trout are being harvested as sport fish, there is no longer a commercial lake trout fishery.



This Excerpt from Faces of a Fish Empire will continue in next issue of the Maritimes.



Faces of a Fish Empire

Publication Year: 2017

Contributors: Tom Kutchera – Naomi Shersty – Joe Kutechera – Michael Timm

Cover design and graphs by Andrew Kutchera

For more information, email the author directly at

Faces of Fish Empire