Commercial fishery plans for Gen 3
Before the sun has come up, the crew of the trap net boat Linda Lee is on deck preparing for an early launch from the lower harbor of Marquette, Mich., in search of Lake Superior whitefish. If it's a long run, 30 miles up the lake, the crew might not return to dock until late afternoon. Their workday won't be over until the catch has been filleted.
Ted Thill, 60, is the sole owner of Thill's Fish House, the commercial fishing operation begun by his father, Francis Thill, in 1948 on Lake Michigan in the waters around the Garden Peninsula, along the southern coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Francis moved to Marquette, along the north coast of the Upper Peninsula, around 1959 to look for more abundant fish in the waters of Lake Superior.
Francis expanded the operation in 1961 with the addition of a retail store, "because people kept coming to the back door looking for fish," says Ted. Most of the restaurants in Marquette buy their fish from Thill's. Lake Superior whitefish appears on menus across the town.
Ted joined the operation full-time in 1973, two days after his wedding. For many years he worked alongside his brothers, Jerry and Rob, before they retired. Today Ted's sons Dan, 40, and Adam, 34, crew the Linda Lee. Depending on the season, up to six people work at Thill's, including Ted's wife, Kathie; Dan's wife, Melody; and one non-family employee.
The Linda Lee uses large commercial fishing nets known as trap nets. These nets have long sections that direct fish into an enclosure called the heart of the trap and then through a tunnel to a device known as a pot. Fishermen raise the pot to harvest the live fish.
When Francis began fishing Lake Superior, state regulations allowed all commercial fisheries to use gill nets, a fence of submerged and anchored net. The netting prevents larger fish from swimming through; the fish are then caught by their gills when they try to back out. Michigan Department of Natural Resources regulations now prohibit non-Native American fisheries from using large mesh gill nets. This change in regulations affected not just how the fish are caught, but also the length of the fishing season.
"We used to be a ten-month fishery," says Ted, who remembers working alongside his father as a 14-year-old. "We used to fish gill nets until the ice got so heavy you couldn't run through it." Now Thill's fishing season begins around the first of May, after the ice has melted on the lake, and ends around late October. In winter, Thill's focuses on its year-round retail/wholesale business, selling ocean salmon, shrimp, king crab and lobster; Canadian perch and walleye; and fresh Lake Superior whitefish from Native American commercial fisheries.
"There is no typical day" on the lake, Ted says. One day, the Linda Lee might catch 200 pounds of fish; three days later, the catch might be 2,000 pounds, he notes. Trap nets are not baited, "so you just set them in spots that you've been setting them for years. Dad taught me where to set, and I taught Dan where to set," Ted says.
Ted says he looks forward to semi-retiring when he reaches 63, to "let the kids take over. It'll be their business in the end."
The fourth generation is already showing some interest. Adam's son is still a toddler, but Dan's oldest son, Dillan, 16, helped out quite a bit in the summer of 2013. "I talked to him a little this summer when he was out on the boat to see how he felt about it," Ted says. "He's interested. We'll see how he feels in a few more years. It's hard work. Long hours."
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
Copyright 2014 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact email@example.com.