Caught in a net of laws and bans, fishermen lost their livelihood

One in an occasional series looking at what's on voters' minds across the commonwealth

ERIE, Pa. -- In a lifetime of pulling things out of Lake Erie, Jerry Mathers has hauled up wriggling fish, discarded baby strollers, storm-tossed trees and, about 20 years ago, the hip bone of an unidentified female.

The fish he sold, the junk he discarded, the trees he tossed back. The hip went to the authorities and Mr. Mathers never heard any more about it. Someone's missing in Cleveland, he figured.

What he can't drag up just now is Lake Erie whitefish. The laws on nets were changed and whitefish aren't perch. They don't follow the lines into the net traps that the new law mandates. To catch whitefish, he says, you need gill nets and gill nets are banned. He has $100,000 worth of them moldering in storage and the whitefish prowl the lake untouched.

"We cannot get 'em. They're out there by the gazillions," Mr. Mathers said. Whitefish rarely bite on a lure and swim at different levels from the perch. He blames the ban on a test of wills between the handful of commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen. One side needed large hauls. The other feared the lake was being emptied.

Now, fishing charters are surging on the lake. Mr. Mathers supplements a meager living by processing the sportsmen's catch.

Erie was once the biggest exporter of freshwater fish, and in Mr. Mathers' youth 30 boats would launch in good weather. As the trade faded, Mr. Mathers signed on his son, Aaron. They became known for their whitefish, which New Yorkers bought by the ton before the net laws changed.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania introduced a $3 stamp on Lake Erie fishing licenses to compensate commercial fishermen for their losses, according to a Fish and Boat Commission spokesman. The special fee ended five years later. Since then, Erie's commercial fishing industry has become an artifact -- a business down to its last boat.

"If I still had the whitefish, this building would be paid for. I'd have a museum in here, too," Jerry Mathers said as he stood in the old beer distributorship for which he laid down $70,000 with plans for a market and growth.

Instead, the building in which the Mathers men process their fish has a sign that all but cries doom: "The Last Fisherman."

The lone commercial tug sailing out of Dobbins Landing, the main anchorage here, is the Big Tony, named for Jerry Mathers' stepfather. It's a boxy, steel-hulled thing with leaky plywood sides and roof, a tangle of nets, and a tattered canvas sheet across the back to keep some of the lake wind and spray from its two-man crew. At one time, it could have been outfitted entirely off the docks here.

"Erie made the boxes, the twine, the anchors for the nets," he said.

Today Erie makes tourist dollars.

People flock to Presque Isle, the spit of sand, trees and swamp that arcs off the shore into Lake Erie. They come to the bayfront at Dobbins Landing to eat seafood and watch the orange sun quench itself in the water to the west. People here are hardworking, ethnic, patriotic and just now, it seems, reacquiring their relationship to the shallowest and once most polluted of the Great Lakes.

That shallowness was a big part in Erie's redemption. The lake water essentially replaces itself every three years as the Erie flows down the Niagara River and into Lake Ontario. Another savior was a pest: the zebra mussel. Once despised as invasive and relentless, the mussels also filtered out the gunk.

Even with its tourist appeal, its beaches and sailboats decorating the lake and the bay, Erie's job generator is a large General Electric plant a mile inland. Four thousand people work there at good paying manufacturing jobs.

The bayfront has a Sheraton, docks filled with sport fishing boats that glimmer in an autumn sun, and a row of shipping docks. A few restaurants do a fair business in summer. Planned events draw nice crowds, including 38,000 people who passed through during a long weekend visit by eight tall sailing ships.

The port sends out tens of millions of dollars in goods, including locomotives from the nearby GE plant. Canada, which is phasing out coal from its generating stations, has been taking composite and biofuels via Erie shipping.

Still, there is the nagging sense that the bayfront has yet to reach its potential.

"There really isn't a cultural critical mass of for-profit-type businesses down there," says Jacob Rouch, vice president for development at the chamber of commerce. "You have a huge commercial and retail corridor on upper Peach Street and the Millcreek Mall and it has a guaranteed traffic flow there. Down on the waterfront it's a lovely location but you can only access it from three angles. You can't access it by four."

That fourth angle, the lake, is Erie's reason for being. Settlers came here to harvest fish and explore the north by water. In 1812 the city became a center of shipbuilding and the reconstructed masts of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship, the Niagara, tower above Dobbins Landing.

At the end of one pier sits a gleaming terminal erected to receive cruise ships. They dock occasionally and U.S. immigration agents are on hand to process foreign visitors. Business isn't booming. With Canada 23 miles away by water and shipping backed up for hours at the bridges that run between Buffalo and Canada, Erie has been unable to get a ferry running between here and Ontario.

"We actually had the money together to buy the boat," said Ray Schreckengost, executive director of the county's port authority. The state kicked in several million for the cruise terminal. They were set to take in 250 passengers per trip if it ever reached that level.

What they found was that the Canadians aren't just polite, unarmed Americans with health insurance. They have a sticky set of laws, and one of them is that a ferry boat has to cover the cost of getting its passengers ashore. In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security will staff, free of charge, any entry facility built to its specifications. Erie did that.

But the Canadians said they'd need to take inspectors, by bus, from the airport in Hamilton, Ontario, to Port Dover and then send the bill per passenger. The ferry ticket would cost $25. The bill from Canadian customs was an additional $37.50, Mr. Schreckengost said.

"Getting a place to land in Dover, getting customs lined up -- to do it, you would need a Canadian partner that had a lot of clout that could get over that issue of customs and immigration," said Mr. Schreckengost.

Hopes for a commercial ferry, to haul big rigs that must now wait in line at bridges near Detroit and Buffalo, ran into American law. It's called the harbor maintenance tax and it levies a fee of .175 percent on the value of each load. Land crossings don't have a harbor so, for now, truckers are content to wait an hour. A bill in Congress to repeal the tax for Great Lakes ports is buried in committee.

As Mr. Schreckengost spoke of the harbor below him, Aaron Mathers was arriving at the Big Tony. His dad followed. They were tidying up the boat. At one time Jerry Mathers had four employees. He could ply the lake for perch and whitefish while the guys back at the shop cleaned and filleted the previous day's catch. Now, the two men take a day off the lake to clean their catch of perch and, for a small fee, the catches brought to them by locals who've filled their day's limit of 30 perch.

In Jerry Mathers' youth, a load of perch sold for 2 cents a pound. Now, a perch sandwich at Smuggler's Wharf, a restaurant at the harbor, goes for $9.

At 65, Mr. Mathers isn't sure how long he'll stay on the water. His son is 25 and fishing alone is a dangerous proposition. If someone doesn't sign on, that sign, the one about the Last Fisherman, could be prophecy.

There is always Canada. On the Port Dover side, commercial fishermen are still at it and making money.

"Now the Canadians," the elder Mathers boomed. "They know how to fish. They're still using the old nets."

Dennis B. Roddy: or 412-263-1965. Read Dennis Roddy's new column at First Published September 30, 2010 4:00 AM


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here