The Petersons are part of a long tradition of commercial fishing among Lake Superior tribes. Avid fishermen for subsistence prior to European settlement, the Lake Superior Chippewa quickly found Gichigami’s (Ojibwe word for Lake Superior) fish to be a valued trade item once explorers penetrated to this inland sea. Tribal fishermen traded fish harvested from birch bark canoes, using gill nets made from twisted and knotted strips of willow bark.
As more and more settlers pushed into the Lake Superior region, non-Indian commercial fishing began to take hold with the use of large boats and massive nets. In fact, the 1930s fishing boom, coupled with the introduction of the lake trout-killing sea lamprey via shipping, nearly devastated the lake trout population by 1960 and severely diminished other Lake Superior species, such as whitefish.
Since that time, state regulations placing stricter limits on commercial fishing have been in place to aid in the recovery of the fishery. State regulations were applied to tribal fishermen as well, despite their treaty-retained right to hunt, fish, and gather in ceded territories and Lake Superior. In order to assert the treaty right, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s former tribal chairman and commercial fisherman Richard Gurnoe went to court. In 1972, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the treaty right for signatory tribes to commercially fish Lake Superior and to self-regulate that fishery in the Gurnoe decision.
In 1984, the treaty tribes formed the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), an agency of eleven Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, to jointly manage the Lake Superior tribal commercial fishery as well as off-reservation inland hunting, fishing and gathering activities in the ceded territories. The treaties between the Ojibwe and the United States government include the treaties of 1836, 1837, 1842, and 1854.
Tribal commercial fishermen in Lake Superior primarily target whitefish, but also fish for lake trout, siscowet, herring, and salmon. Tribal commercial fishing is regulated through tribal codes as well as through negotiated agreements with the state of Wisconsin for the Wisconsin waters of Lake Superior. Quotas are set and adhered to. GLIFWC and tribal fisheries biologists monitor the fishery through annual assessments and work with state, federal and tribal agencies on restoration and enhancement efforts and participate in the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, an international convention. Wardens from GLIFWC and the tribes enforce tribal codes on tribal commercial fishing activity and cite violations in tribal court. Many of the tribes maintain hatcheries to stock species such as walleye, perch, lake trout, and coaster brook trout.
The family owned and managed Peterson’s Fish Market is one of several fish businesses run by tribal families. They are an inter-generational family business. Gilmore Peterson, a Red Cliff tribal member and a fourth generation commercial fisherman, learned the trade from his father Wilfred, who in turn learned from his father. Today, Gilmore and his wife Pat run the business while their three sons, Chris, Joel and Matt, ply the waters and the rest of their family members work at the Peterson’s Fish Market in Hancock, Michigan and the adjacent Four Suns cafe. “We all work here,” says Pat, “sons, daughter-in-laws, grandkids; we all work here processing and smoking fish or in the cafe.” The Petersons employ nineteen people; about two-thirds of those are family.
Bringing in enough fish is the biggest challenge, says Pat, but there are many challenges behind that goal – like maintaining the boats, maintaining nets, learning the fishery and finding the fish. Once the fish are in, hours of filleting keep family members busy with flashing knives and packing.