Commercial fishing in Chicago: an industry to be revitalized
Even though there’s no shortage of seafood restaurants in Chicago, you may not know that almost none of these restaurants serves fish caught in Lake Michigan, according to WebezChicago’s “Curious City” podcast. Why is that so? Has it always been this way? We will try to answer these questions.
Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022.
I’m your host, Giovanni Scalvi, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Law School.
Today, we will be exploring the topic of fishing on Lake Michigan in Chicago.
As we all know, America is the country of BBQ, and Chicago is worldwide famous for hot dogs, polish sausages and meet sandwiches.
In Chicago you can also find many well-known seafood restaurants.
Well, from a City that sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest lake by area in one country (according to Wikipedia), you would expect to have the chance to taste fish caught in the Lake.
Well, this might leave you puzzled, but actually, according to WebezChicago’s “Curious City” podcast, episode “Gone fishing: What happened to Chicago’s Booming Commercial Fishing Industry?”, hardly any of the fish served in Chicago’s seafood restaurants, or sold in local fish markets, is caught here.
The truth is that today, in Chicago, despite the significant presence of sport fishing activities, the commercial fishing industry is almost entirely missing. Today, there is not a single commercial fishing business still working here, according to the YouTube video “How Chicago Lost Its Commercial Fishing Industry” created by Forbes.
I found this piece of information really hard to believe for a city placed in the Great Lake area. And that’s where I got the idea for this podcast.
In my country, Italy, we are very proud of the products of our own land and waters. And speaking about seafood, we do not only value the many delicious seafood of the Mediterranean Sea, but also, of course, lake fish. For instance, I live close the Lake Iseo, which is known for its incredible species of fish such as lake sardines or trouts, that you can find in any local restaurant that serves fish.
But this is not what you will find in Chicago.
Things have not always been like this. In the past decades, Chicago’s fishing industry was a prosperous one. According to Vic Santucci, Lake Michigan Program Director in Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the number of commercial fishers from the end of the World War II in 1946 to 1974 had been always between 16 and 55. Mr. Santucci gave this data during an interview given for the Forbes video on YouTube “How Chicago Lost Its Commercial Fishing Industry”.
But it is right from the decades that followed the end of World War II that the fall of fishing in Chicago began.
Lawrence T. Schweig, a member of the family that owned LTS, the last commercial fishing company operating in Chicago until the 90’, during an interview for the article titled “A Disappearing Species” written by David Witter for Chicagoreader.com, said that during World War II the federal Government encouraged the commercial fishermen to fish trout to feed the people, with the promise that they would restock it. But then they didn’t, and the lamprey eel came into the lake, which further destroyed the trout stock. That, combined with the runoff of chemicals like DDT, which gathered in the long-lived trout, hastened the FDA to rule commercial trout fishing illegal.
This interview was given in 1994. And even at that time LTS was the only company in the fishing industry in Chicago. “We’re the last local outlet still providing a resource for the people of the state” said Lawrence T. Schweig.
After that, another hit to commercial fishing industry has been the significant growth of sport fishing and fishing charters, which are now very common in Chicago.
As time progressed, the limits of what commercial fishers could fish were tightened. After 1974, the number of commercial fishers dropped to only 3, that were picked by a lottery set up by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said Vic Santucci when interviewed by Forbes for the YouTube video I have mentioned before. A lot of people were therefore put out of business. Today, in the whole State of Illinois, there is only one commercial fishing license, and it has not been used for the last 20 years. The holder is David Atkinson, a former commercial fisher and owner of Atkinson Fishery.
Nowadays there are companies that might set up a restaurant or a shop supplied by their own fish, but it’s nothing comparable to the commercial fishing outlets that were established in Chicago decades ago.
In this regard, it is also noteworthy that some attempts to encourage the consumption of local fish have been set up by the relevant authorities. For example, the name of a fish species formerly known as “Asian Carp”, an invasive species in the waters of Lake Michigan, has been officially rebranded as “COPI” by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
This was just an example of the many potentialities that the commercial fishing industry could have for the people of Chicago and of the State of Illinois.
I truly believe that today there are the conditions to think about possible implementations of the commercial fishing industry, so as to revitalize it. Local fish should be considered an important asset for the city of Chicago. Not only as a food resource but also as a source of employment.
Thank you for listening.
I’ll conclude this podcast with one last thought. Davide Atkinson, when asked whether he would return to commercial fishing during the interview given to Forbes, answered “in a heart-bit! There’s nothing like fishing on Lake Michigan, it’s a passion” . And I really hope that his dream, one day soon, will become true.
Chicago Sun-Times online – link: https://chicago.suntimes.com/metrostate/2022/6/21/23176926/asian-carp-rename-rebrand-illinois-department-nationalresources
“Gone fishing: What happened to Chicago’s Booming Commercial Fishing
Industry?” (episode of the WebezChicago’s “Curious City” podcast on Spotify)
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Michigan
“A Disappearing Species” by David Witter for Chicagoreader.com –
“How Chicago Lost Its Commercial Fishing Industry | Forbes” -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFloM1yAhqQ
“Asian carp get more appetizing name to encourage eating as means to control invasive species” by Mark Rivera – https://abc7chicago.com/copi-asian-carp-new-name-isedible-illinois/11987699/
Piano and Two Guitars in Am by Zenboy1955 (c) copyright 2022 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Zenboy1955/65241 Ft: the3amassociation