WMU News

Students eat lawyers, record history through work for fisheries exhibit

July 14, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- It's not often that conducting research requires one to eat a lawyer. But five Western Michigan University students and two faculty members found themselves doing just that this summer as part of their research on the history of regulation and conservation of Lake Michigan fisheries.

Armed with tape recorders and cameras, the five students and Drs. Michael J. Chiarappa and Kristin M. Szylvian, WMU assistant professors of history, spent nearly three physically and emotionally demanding weeks in a van, making their way from Ludington and the Leelanau Peninsula to coastal Wisconsin to gather more than 40 oral histories of fishing the "Big Lake."

It was on Washington Island, Wis., that they dined on lawyers, which is a type of freshwater cod caught in Lake Michigan. Burbot, as the fish is formally known, is referred to by the locals as a "lawyer." A local fisherman introduced the researchers to what many consider the "poor man's lobster" by taking them to his family's restaurant to give them a fresh burbot dinner.

Such local lore will become part of the project's outcome, a traveling exhibit called "Fish for All: The Legacy of Lake Michigan Fisheries Policy and Management." The project 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, commercial and sport fishermen, and environmental and conservation groups. The effort is 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.

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 and trap net boats, inside fish packing and equipment sheds or by spending all night on a research vessel.

In order to truly understand how fisheries regulation influences the lives and livelihoods of their subjects, students often found themselves putting down the recorders and picking up a net or knife and digging in.

"Getting into the work and observing what they are doing adds so much to your understanding," says Jason M. Wintersteen, a senior from Marshall, Mich., who took on the tasks of a deckhand on a fishing tug. "If they see you jump in and do the work with them, it tends to get them to open up more. Working alongside them helped open my eyes to their views and helped me to gain their acceptance."

Graduate student Matthew G. Anderson of Cadillac, Mich., says the generosity of those the team encountered was "overwhelming." In addition to the lawyer dinner, the group was treated to a traditional Door County, Wis., fish boil by a family of commercial fisherman.

"I think we really touched nerves," Anderson says of those interviewed. "We wanted to know about their pasts and we were respectful of their history. 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 willingness of the subjects to talk was a welcome surprise to the researchers. Chiarappa says that the students may not have an appreciation for how successful their endeavors were.

"We were very successful conducting so many interviews in such a short amount of time," he says. "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."

Team members included Anderson, Wintersteen, Abraham M. Hohnke of Traverse City, Mich.; Cindy M. Olsen of Bessemer, Mich.; and Clair A. Gornowicz of Saginaw, Mich.

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."

Even though they have gathered enough oral histories to support the project, the students' work is hardly over. Now comes the arduous task of sorting through hundreds of pictures, transcribing hours of taped interviews and putting that information together with the extensive amount of research done earlier this year. Some of the information will make it into the exhibit, be used in a publication or incorporated into related educational materials that will accompany the exhibit.

One student, Abraham Hohnke, will be working with the staff of WMUK-FM, WMU's National Public Radio member station, to develop a 30-minute radio documentary about the project. The radio program will incorporate audio footage gathered in the field and will be aired later this summer.

"It was great documenting the human experience," says Hohnke, a senior. "It was also good, but frightening, to see the state's ecology and the shape it is in. It really helps you understand their culture and the attitudes they have."

The exhibit is expected to be completed by March 2000 and is scheduled for display in Traverse City, East Lansing, Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and at the Michigan Maritime Museum. The exhibit will be permanently housed at the Michigan Maritime Museum following its travels.

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

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