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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Superior Fish Memories

Air Date: Week of

In the 1930's, Lake Superior supported a thriving fishing industry. Today, there are only a remaining handful of commercial fisher folk. This summer the tiny town of Tofte on the north shore of Lake Superior opened a museum to honor the Scandinavians who once made a living on the lakes' rugged coastline. Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Losure prepared this report about these fishing families, and the environmental catastrophes that ended their way of life.


CURWOOD: In the 1930s, Lake Superior supported a thriving fishing industry. Today, only a handful of commercial fisher folk remain. This summer, the tiny town of Tofte, on the north shore of Lake Superior, opened a museum to honor the Scandinavians who once made a living on the lake's rugged coastline. Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Losure prepared this report about these fishing families, and the environmental catastrophes that ended their way of life.

LOSURE: The 2-lane highway on the rugged north shore of Lake Superior winds through birch and aspen forests, along the edge of a lake so big it has fogs and breaking waves like the ocean. Walter Sve's Norwegian immigrant father and mother settled here in 1927. They fished for herring from a small wooden boat, like the one Walter Sve still uses today.

[Gull mews, whirring sounds]

SVE: It's a, pretty-looking boat, isn't it [laughs]? Yeah, this here is gonna be real good boat for, for Eric, my son Eric to, fish with.

[Gull cries]

LOSURE: From May to November, Walter Sve goes out each day to fish for herring. He steers by compass through a thick fog, to the buoys that mark his four nets, about a mile from shore.

[Boat motor whirrs, stops. Pulled ropes creak]

LOSURE: Standing in the bow, he pulls each net up, hand over hand, then picks out the herring one by one and tosses them into a bin. He's fished this same spot his whole life, since he quit school at age 16 to fish with his father. Once, there were families like the Sves every half mile or so along the shore. Now, Walter, who at 69 fishes mostly for a hobby, is one of just a few dozen remaining commercial fishermen and women.

SVE: Well, to the west, there's nobody till you get to Knife River, that's 25 miles, and to the east, it's 8 miles to the closest one.

[Boat motor starts up again]

SVE: And in that area, years ago, good grief! I don't know how many else you'd see, [laughs] but there was a lot of 'em!

[Gulls mew and cry]

LOSURE: The story of what happened to the north shore fishing families is an environmental cautionary tale, a series of human blunders that devastated Lake Superior's once-rich supplies of herring and lake trout. In the 1930s, an exotic species, the smelt, spread into Lake Superior after it was experimentally introduced into a nearby lake by a Michigan state agency. The invading smelt preyed on the native herring. At the same time, another exotic species, the lamprey eel, also made its way into Lake Superior, through man-made shipping channels that connected the Great Lakes with the North Atlantic. Lamprey bite into lake trout, rasp holes in their sides, and suck out their body fluids. But the disaster Sve remembers most vividly, was when Reserve Mining of Silver Bay, just a few miles northeast of the Sves, began dumping mine tailings into Lake Superior. The clear water took on a grayish-green cast. He could see through it for only about a foot, where before, he could see down 25.

SVE: August 27th or 28th, of 1956, that's when the dirty water reached our place, and beyond. And then each year it got worse, so I had to start moving my nets out, further and further out in the lake, to get outside of the dirty water, because the herring, with their gill structure, they can't tolerate any dirt in the water, so, by '64, I was 7 miles out in lake.

LOSURE: The next year, he went further out from shore, so far his small boat was out in the traffic from the big ore ships. But he never did get to clean water, and realized it was no use.

SVE: They just didn't set any herring nets for--oh, almost 25 years, they didn't even have any herring nets in the lake.

LOSURE: Today, both herring and lake trout are rebounding in Lake Superior, given a new start by restocking, an aggressive program of lamprey control, and the decline of the exotic smelt population. Reserve Mining was forced to stop dumping its tailings in the lake in 1980. The waters where Walter Sve fishes are clear again. But the rebirth came too late to save the traditional commercial fishing industry, now memorialized in a small museum at Tofte.

[People talking inside an airy building]

LOSURE: The barn-red building, a replica of an old fish house, sits next to the highway on the site of an old Standard Oil station. Inside, cotton nets hang from the ceiling, and wooden buoys are stacked in the corners. Brian Tofte, the grandson of one of the Norwegian fishermen who founded the town, is one of the museum's most active supporters. He wanted to preserve the stories of the fishing families before they were forgotten.

TOFTE: My earliest memories are, as a young boy getting on the grade-school bus, waking up in the morning and looking out our window and seeing these fishermen motoring out to their nets in the sunrise, and that was just a really romantic thing--

LOSURE: On one wall of the museum is a display marked "Memorials," traditional cedarwood fishing floats, each one with a brass plate with names of fishing families. Fenstad, Carlson, Sivertson, and Olson. Kermit Carlsen lives near the tiny town of Schroeder [name?], in a modest house with a view of the lake and his family's fish house. His father and mother came from Norway in the early 1920s, but Karlson says now, land on the shore is too expensive for a fishing family to buy.

KARLSON: Oh, I think the fish'll come back, but I don't think there'll be any place for anybody to fish. A lot of these old fishermen have died or quit fishing or stuff like that, and then, eventually they sell out, and there'll be no place to get on the lake again [laughs ruefully].

LOSURE: Not far down the road from the Carlsens, a 6-acre lake-front lot is for sale, for $325,000. Tourism, now, is the future of the north shore. New resorts are springing up in the rocky coves. The time when an immigrant family could homestead there is long past. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Losure.



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