WMU News

Fisheries history exhibit at Door County Museum

Aug. 30, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- It was on Washington Island, Wis., that a team of researchers from Western Michigan University ate lawyers for the first time.

Not the Juris Doctor, briefcase-toting variety, but instead burbot, a type of freshwater cod caught in Lake Michigan that the locals refer to as a "lawyer." There to gather information on the history of regulation and conservation of Lake Michigan fisheries, the researchers were introduced to the dish that many consider "the poor man's lobster" by local commercial fisherman Ken Koyen, who took them to his family's restaurant.

Now, more than a year after their first lawyer dinner, the result of the team's research comes back to Door County as an exhibit titled "Fish for All: Perspectives on the History of Lake Michigan Fisheries Policy and Management," which will be on display Sept. 16 through Nov. 26 at the Door County Maritime Museum, 120 N. Bay Ave Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Exhibit hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 5-17 years of age, and $12 for families.

As part of the exhibit, an educational program looking at fisheries law enforcement will be offered at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30. "Law Enforcement on the Water: A Tour of the Patrol Boat 'Barney Devine,'" will be presented on the docks of the Door County Maritime Museum. The program will give participants an opportunity to tour the converted fish tug and meet its captain and crew, as well as visit an exhibit on the role the crew of the Barney Devine plays in fisheries law enforcement and ecosystem management.

The exhibit takes a historical look at the regulation of fishing on Lake Michigan and how it has been influenced by federal and state governments, Native Americans, and commercial and sport fishermen. It is the result of more than a year of research and development by a team of five students and Dr. Michael J. Chiarappa, WMU assistant professor of history, and Dr. Kristin M. Szylvian, WMU associate professor of history.

Armed with tape recorders and cameras, the team made their way from Ludington and the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan to coastal Wisconsin to gather artifacts and record more than 50 oral histories of fishing the "Big Lake." Among the individuals interviewed by team members were

commercial, charter sport and tribal fishers and representatives from local, state, and federal regulatory agencies. The team members conducted interviews in restaurants, on docks, on the decks of fish tugs, inside fish packing sheds, and by spending all night on a research vessel.

According to Chiarappa, the team was pleasantly surprised by the generosity they encountered while conducting their interviews. In addition to the lawyer dinner, the group was treated to a traditional Door County fish boil by a family of commercial fishermen. Not only were the subjects they spoke with generous with meals, but also with their time and willingness to talk.

"Aware as we are of the emotional nature of the topic, we expected many people wouldn't talk to us. But we didn't find anyone to be like that," Chiarappa says.

Graduate student Matthew Anderson speculated that people were so helpful because the team's effort "really touched nerves."

"We wanted to know about their pasts and we were respectful of their history," he says. "The power of history is that it wakes people up to their past, gives them the tools to deal with the present and look to the future."

And while the team found some humor in such things as eating lawyers and their own seasickness, these experiences also brought home the seriousness of their research efforts.

"We worked very hard to make inroads into these communities and get to know their culture," says Szylvian. "While we can see the humor in some of these activities, we also know that this is their culture and livelihood. It is very important to them and to our understanding of the impact they have on the fisheries of the lake."

The exhibit is comprised of more than 100 artifacts, photographs, documents and pieces of artwork, and includes excerpts from more than 50 oral interviews. Completed this past March, the exhibit has already been featured in museums in Traverse City and East Lansing, Mich. In addition, a 30-minute radio documentary about the project was created by one of the team's student members and the staff of WMUK-FM, WMU's National Public Radio member station. That program recently won an honorable mention in the Michigan Associated Press Broadcasters Association competition and was picked up by Voice of America for broadcast as part of its programming

Chiarappa, who teaches maritime history at WMU, hopes that the exhibit will build greater understanding of the public debate surrounding one of the region's, and the world's, most contested natural resources.

The Fish for All exhibit has been funded in part by a $198,720 grant from the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust and by the Great Lakes Center for Maritime Studies, a partnership between WMU and the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Mich.

For more information, contact Szylvian or Chiarappa at the Great Lakes Center for Maritime Studies at (616) 387-7330.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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