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On a recent August day, the fishers aboard the Donna F. and their sister boat the B.E. Miller chugged out into the waters of Lake Erie. The conditions were ideal. You need hot weather to fish for smelt, tiny fish which, when fully grown, range from 7.5 to 11.5 centimetres long. As the water warms, the smelt school in the lake's cooler, deeper regions; the fishers then lower their seine nets and take the whole lot in one go.
The Great Lakes Food Co. in Chatham, Ontario, owner of the Donna F. and B.E. Miller, is one of the largest harvesters of freshwater smelt in the world. With five boats trawling Lake Erie this year, and two others on contract, the company controls almost half of the nine-million-kilogram annual quota.
Of the five Great Lakes, Erie has the largest fishery, accounting for about 80% of the commercial catch. "The species with the highest value are definitely walleye, yellow perch and what's called whitefish," says Kevin Reid, the assessment manager of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries' Association in Blenheim, Ontario. "After that, I would put the smelt."
Besides the men with the nets, the smelt in the Great Lakes face other, more pernicious man-made threats. The shipping industry has inadvertently introduced such invasive species as sea lamprey—a parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean—and zebra mussels, which scientists believe are contributing to algae blooms. The arrival of Asian carp here also looms. "If you've seen what has happened in the U.S., it might be a little cause for concern because the carp have just gone in and taken over massive bodies of water," says John Neate, the president and chief executive officer of Great Lakes Food Co.
Perhaps the most pressing issue for the $170-million industry, however, is finding people to work the nets; fishers are in short supply. "I think that younger kids look for different work than this," says Joe Zimba, captain of the Donna F. "It kind of takes a lot of your summer time and your personal life."
The Donna F.'s catch this day, after two hours of trawling, was about 8,000 kilograms of smelt. Their final destination—dinner tables in Asia.
Swipe or click to see more photos. All photos by John Packman for Report on Business magazine