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Commercial fishing, once a way of life on Great Lakes, slips away

For the first time since the 1800s, there are no commercial fishing boats operating out of Milwaukee.

The boats are gone because the fish are gone.

The lake might appear from the shore as blue and beautiful as ever, but that's not the lake Dan Anderson sees through eyes creased and scorched from decades spent on the water and under the sun.

He sees a liquid desert.

This was once the wild, wooded Northwest, and the lake harbored one of the most spectacular freshwater fisheries in the world. Plump lake trout reigned atop a food web loaded with species such as perch, sturgeon, lake herring, whitefish and chubs.

It didn't take long for immigrant fishermen to figure out how to make a living off these fish.

By 1900, commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan were hauling in an average of 41 million pounds of fish annually. As the stocks began to decline, fishermen's efforts picked up.

By 1938, Wisconsin's commercial fishing operations were motorized and mechanized and generated jobs for more than 2,000 workers. Nets were still pulling 14 million pounds of fish out of Lake Michigan a year.

The fish were iced, loaded on trucks and rolled to cities as far away as New York.

The historic harvest rates were unsustainable, but that's not the problem today.

"The decline of the (commercial) fishery going on right now in Lake Michigan and Huron doesn't have anything to do with overfishing," said David Lodge, a biologist and Great Lakes expert at the University of Notre Dame. "It's changes in the food web that appear to be driven by invasive mussels."

The primary suspect is the quagga mussel, which arrived in the Great Lakes as a stowaway in the ballast tanks of freighters that carried them across the Atlantic.

Today they smother the bottom of the lake almost from shore to shore, and their numbers are estimated at 900 trillion.

Each Junior Mint-size quagga can filter up to a liter of water per day, stripping away the plankton that for thousands of years directly and indirectly sustained the lake's native fish.

Leslie Schwarz Winter manages Schwarz Fish Company in Sheboygan. Her family has been in the wholesale business for 99 years.

"It's disappointing. It's even disgusting, what's been done to Lake Michigan," she says.

"We have the world's largest supply of freshwater here, and nobody was keeping tabs on it. And now it's too late."