WMU News

'Fish for All' exhibit returns to Southwest Michigan

Jan. 18, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- After a year on the road traveling from Traverse City and Lansing to Door County, Wis., an exhibit by Western Michigan University researchers on the history of regulation and conservation of Lake Michigan fisheries has come home.

"Fish for All: Perspectives on the History of Lake Michigan Fisheries Policy and Management," is on display at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Mich., until March 3.

"It is our hope that the exhibit has helped to build public awareness of the differing perspectives of commercial, tribal and sport fishers, regarding the management of Lake Michigan fisheries by state and federal government officials," says Dr. Kristin M. Szylvian, WMU associate professor of history. Szylvian, with Dr. Michael J. Chiarappa, WMU assistant professor of history, led a team that researched and created the exhibit. This will be the last stop for the exhibit, which has traveled around the Midwest for the past year. At the conclusion of its run at the Michigan Maritime Museum, it will be dismantled and loaned items such as artifacts and photos will be returned to their owners.

"The exhibit will never again be as it is now," says Szylvian.

Two educational programs are planned to accompany the exhibit. The first, on Saturday, Jan. 27, will feature Dr. Robert Grunst, professor of English at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., who will speak on the "History of Commercial Fishing in South Haven" at 2 p.m. in the Padnos Boat Shed at the Michigan Maritime Museum. Grunst, who grew up in Holland, has worked as a deckhand and an engineer aboard commercial fishing vessels on Lake Michigan. The author of "The Smallest Bird in North America," which was recently published by WMU's New Issues Press, Grunst has written on the language, culture and history of Great Lakes commercial fishing.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, a program titled "A Cultural and Historical Tour of the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery" will be offered at 1 p.m. at the hatchery, which is located on Fish Hatchery Road in Mattawan, Mich. The program will feature a tour and discussion on the changes that took place at the hatchery during the 1920s-30s, when the facility was given money for improvements by the Izaak Walton League. Both programs are free and open to the public

The exhibit, which is comprised of more than 100 artifacts, photographs, documents and pieces of artwork as well as excerpts from more than 50 oral interviews, 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 Szylvian, Chiarappa and several students.

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 hours of oral history about 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 while spending all night on a research vessel.

According to Chiarappa, the team was pleasantly surprised by the generosity they encountered while conducting their interviews. The subjects they spoke to were not only generous with their time and willingness, but many also loaned items that had been in their families for generations.

"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.

Team member and recent WMU graduate 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."

The team also learned many things they hadn't expected to through such experiences as gutting fish as deckhands, piloting a ferry and condensing a mountain of material into a finely crafted museum exhibit. Szylvian says these experiences brought home the seriousness of their research efforts.

"We worked very hard to make inroads into these communities and get to know their culture," she says. "We had to have an appreciation of the fact that this is their culture and livelihood. It is very important to them and to our understanding of the impact they have on the lake's fisheries."

Completed last March, the exhibit has been featured in museums in Traverse City and East Lansing, Mich., and in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. 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

The Michigan Maritime Museum is located at 260 Dyckman Ave. in South Haven. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission fees are $1.50 for children 5 through 12 years of age and senior citizens, and $2.50 for adults. Museum members get in free. A family pass is $8.00.

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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