The Battle For Lake Erie

Ohio wants to wipe out an entire industry, just for sport.

Commercial Fishing Ohio Department of Natural Resources
A cold February wind blew across the marsh in Benton Township. Rick Meinke often came here to hunt ducks, his trusty Labrador, Ottis, by his side. But today, Ottis was back at the house. And the .38 pistol weighing down his hand wasn't for sport.

Rick, with his full head of sea-salt white hair and biceps like petrified wood, certainly didn't look sick. Only his wife, Brenda, knew that a parasite had attached itself deep within her husband's 58-year-old body. At first, they'd thought the blood was from hemorrhoids. But Rick had another dark secret that he kept even from his wife, one that he was taking to the grave.

Brothers Gary and Charles Meinke were hunting in the woods near the family farm when they got Brenda's frantic call. Rick, a commercial fisherman, was usually home from the marina by early afternoon. But he hadn't come, hadn't called. The washed-out sky over Lake Erie was darkening. Rain would soon turn to snow. And Rick's gun was missing from the living-room shelf.

By the time Rick's brothers found his body, he'd already gone cold. A trail of dried blood ran from his nose to his T-shirt. The gun lay where it had fallen on his leg. There was no note.

Two years earlier, on a cold November day in 2002, a strange call had come into the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Sandusky outpost. The caller didn't offer his name. He just started talking.

Kevin Ramsey, lead enforcement officer, didn't recognize the voice, but he pegged him for a fisherman by the way he was talking. "He was specific on things that no one in the public would have known," Ramsey recalls.

The man told Ramsey how some commercial fishermen on Lake Erie were engaged in a massive poaching scheme. Though the state imposes strict limits on their catch, fishermen from Port Clinton Fish Company were taking in tens of thousands of pounds of yellow perch beyond those restrictions, then laundering their take past state wildlife authorities, the man said.

Then he hung up.

When the season began the following May, Ramsey's agents staked out the company's dock in the Flats. They snapped photos of fishermen unloading 100-pound boxes of yellow perch. Back at the station, Ramsey counted the boxes in the pictures, then compared the number with the fishermen's catch reports. When he looked closely at the paper documents, he noticed eraser marks.

Laundering the fish was easy, says Ramsey. Truckloads of yellow perch were being shipped to Canada, returning as virtually untraceable dollar bills.

The only obstacle was customs. But by claiming the loads were white perch, a cheaper and less restricted species, border police would wave them through every time.

"We realized there was some wholesale cheating going on," Ramsey says. But the identity of the anonymous caller remained a mystery. Only later did Ramsey learn that it was Rick Meinke.

He won't speculate what caused Meinke to snitch, but if it was the resentment of a man who played by the rules, Meinke's plan quickly spiraled out of control.

Agents also decided to conduct surveillance on other commercial fishermen, staking out docks along the lakefront. What they uncovered was a scandal of unprecedented proportions: Virtually every major fish house was on the take, and a third of the 12 commercial license holders were bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit yellow perch. One of the dirtiest players was Lake Fish Company in Sandusky -- a house co-owned by Craig Carr, Meinke's son-in-law.

On the morning of February 20, 2004, agents raided Lake Fish. They seized hard drives, accounting ledgers, and filing cabinets full of records.

Meinke apparently never believed his tip would come back on his family. His people had fished Lake Erie since the Great Depression. Rick, once a star linebacker at Clay High School, had even turned down college scholarships to join his father on the boat.

But on that February afternoon, he grabbed his pistol from the shelf, drove down the rough road to the marsh, and put an end to it all.

In the spring of 2004, as the snow melted into green, a frost of paranoia clung to the fishermen.

Game wardens usually issue violations as swiftly as cops issue parking tickets, but what the fishermen didn't know was that Ramsey had handed his investigation over to a Cuyahoga County grand jury. They would wait another year, till June 2005, to take their hit -- a litany of felony indictments befitting a New York crime boss: racketeering, theft, forgery, money-laundering. Some were facing up to 15 years behind bars.

"You'd think I had an Italian last name or something," says Rich Stinson, owner of Port Clinton Fish. "I don't deal in drugs . . . It's food!"

Each of the 13 fishermen and wholesalers pleaded guilty to the charges. In exchange for paying restitution of up to $160,000, they got to go home to their wives.

"We all have families, so we had to take the best way out," says Lake Fish co-owner Dale Trent. "You could not afford to take a chance to lose."

They would now have to hustle to recoup their losses. But before they could even dip their nets back in the water, they learned that this year's season might well be their last.

Commercial fishing has been on thin ice for years. The fishermen are at the mercy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which has long treated them more like shoplifters than legitimate businessmen. When the walleye started disappearing in the early '70s, ODNR banned them from catching any more. When the perch thinned out in the '90s, the state barred nets from certain parts of the lake and shortened their season by two months.

The poaching charges put them in a death grip. In the natural world, such transgressions are akin to rape. Sport fishermen were enraged. When the fish aren't biting, it's natural to blame the guys coasting back to shore with a thousand pounds of white bellies on ice. Weekend sportsmen have long believed their commercial brethren were an open drain on Lake Erie's fish stock. Now they had proof. And they were ready for war.

In 2005, Ohio took in $14 million from sport licenses alone. More than $5 million followed, by way of federal tax rebates on fishing gear. And when a million sports fishermen take on a mere 12 commercial companies, it's not hard to figure out where politicians will line up.

In April, state Representative Jim McGregor (R-Gahanna) decided to kill off the commercial industry altogether. The former Ohio parks naturalist introduced a bill that would force them to sell their licenses back to the state for the equivalent of one year's revenue.

Though hearings begin this month, they may simply be a dress rehearsal for a foregone conclusion. Senator Joy Padgett (R-Coshocton) expects the buyout to be completed by next spring's opener.

Commercial fishing "is just not a successful business in any way," says McGregor. "You can make a lot of money in the short run, but at the destruction of the fishery in the long run."

Charter boat captain Jerry Abele's face is as weathered as driftwood. He's been taking sportsmen out from the Marblehead docks since the 1970s. He's hated commercial netters just as long.

Abele says he remembers watching them massacre the prized blue pike into extinction with gill nets, which trap the fish by their gills when they try to swim out, leaving dead and inedible fish in their wake. The rotting carcasses would be hauled to the beach and burned. "Like garbage," Abele spits.

Walleye also faced extermination, until state wildlife officials banned their commercial catch in the '70s. Since then, the population has rebounded. Thanks to a fantastic spawn in 2003, sport fishermen are enjoying one of their most bountiful years yet.

But in Jim Lowry's eyes, it's the first break anglers have caught in years. Decades ago, fishing towns like Port Clinton were so gridlocked with boats that "you could actually walk across the things," remembers the Canal Fulton man, whose T-shirt reads "Shut Up and Fish" across his broad back. "This place was a gold mine."

Those were days when Abele was booked solid with weekend warriors, each hauling in enough perch to feed a parish fry.

Then the perch started vanishing. There were several factors, including bad weather and increased competition from other species that almost wiped out the yellow perch in the early '90s. Still, commercial fishermen took most of the blame.

So wildlife officials clamped down, eliminating two months from their season and banning the netters from river mouths. In 1996, the state went further, setting strict limits for all fishermen. The perch population has rebounded, but it's been slow.

"The fishing just isn't the quality these guys have come to expect," Abele says of his customers.

Some charter captains decided to take matters into their own hands. In May, Pete Scheid and Bob Collins snapped photos of the dead fish left in the wake of commercial nets. The pair scooped up 80 undersize perch that had perished after being thrown overboard.

In an ironic twist, the two charter captains were charged with fishing illegally. But they had made their point. "Perch fishing's been tough for the last 10 years," Scheid says. "If we can get the trap netters out from abusing their quotas and taking out too many fish, it could only get better and make it easier and more enjoyable for the mom and pop to hop in their boat and to enjoy a great day on the lake."

In Port Clinton, a town that bills itself as "the Walleye Capital of the World," guys like Scheid and Abele wield a mighty sword.

The town is a crisscross of highways dotted with marinas. Take them away, and pretty much all that's left is a Wal-Mart, a pancake house, and a cheese barn. Anglers nationwide know it as home to some of the best walleye fishing in the world. The city plays host to some of the top pro tours.

Each New Year's Eve, thousands of revelers pack the streets to watch Wylie the Walleye -- a 600-pound, 30-foot-long fiberglass monster -- drop from a 60-foot crane. It's the North Coast equivalent of the ball in Times Square.

"I've even married people in front of the fish," says Mayor Tom Brown, whose symmetrically parted hair and wire-rimmed spectacles give him the look of a dentist. "It's a hoot and a holler."

Brown's office makes no secret of where his loyalties lie. The walls are dressed with mounted walleye. His dog is named Wylie, a name also found on the vanity plates of his car.

"I call it economic gold," he says of sport fishing. "As a mayor, I try to stay somewhat in the middle of the road. But in this case, I am a sports fisherman at heart, and I've gotta support what they're doing."

The Sunray 2 -- nine tons of welded steel, a 370-horsepower diesel, and not much else -- chugs like a lumbering school bus under the Sandusky Bay railroad bridge. To the right, the roller coasters of Cedar Point sit quiet. To the left is nothing but calm, blue water fanned by a gentle wind.

Sitting on an upside-down crate is Dean Koch, a bear-sized old-timer in black shades and a rubber smock. He's taken the same 30-minute ride out to his nets for three decades. His 20-year-old son, Drew, hopes to carry his father's legacy into the next generation.

When he was 15, Dean was walking to a pond when he stopped to talk to a group of fishermen with coppered forearms and hands as leathery as baseball mitts. One offered him a job on a catfish boat. He's been on the water ever since.

Dean reaches his first net, marked by a buoy. The grumbling motor idles. Over the rail, hundreds of fish swim in circles, searching for a way out. It's a quick death. Dean stands over a butcher's block as his son shovels white bellies from the water and dumps them in front of his father.

The fish convulse and thrash like a tray of popcorn. Dean sorts them like a well-trained assembly-line worker. The small are shoved off the side of the boat, where hungry gulls await free meals. The big -- sheepshead, white bass, and white perch -- are thrown into crates.

Then there's the yellow perch -- "the lobster of Lake Erie." Their sweet taste and delicate texture make them a tourist favorite. A platter of fried filets can sell for as much as a steak.

Yellow perch put Dean's kids through school. They go wholesale for $2.50 a pound. But he's limited by the quotas imposed by the state. This year, he's permitted no more than 75,556 pounds, which will generate almost $200,000. That puts Dean, who was never implicated in the poaching bust, snugly in the middle class of the Lake Erie netters.

When ODNR created quotas in 1996, it unwittingly gave birth to a caste system. Each fisherman was given a slice of the annual harvest, based on his operation at the time. The guys with the smallest catches, like Joe Smith, were suddenly stuck there, told they could take in a small percentage of the yearly haul. The biggest outfit, Kenny King's, which has three licenses, was given a quota now worth almost $2 million a year. So the working class took the law into its own hands.

"If Wildlife had done the quotas properly in the first place, none of that [poaching] would have happened," says Dean. "What are you gonna do if your family's starving?"

Dean has a dozen boxes of fish on ice as the sun starts casting long shadows behind his tired crew. His arms, as thick as bundles of cable, are covered in scales.

As the Sunray 2 coasts home, Drew lies back on a pile of dirty nets and shields his face from the sun with a frayed Bud Light cap. Dean slides open the dirty windshield to let the cool breeze blow in his face.

"Every man should love his work," he says contentedly.

Back at the boathouse, nestled among cornfields in the bayside shantytown of Crystal Rock, Dean uses a power shovel to load the bed of his Chevy pickup with the day's catch.

He takes the corners slowly on his way to Lake Fish Company to sell his bounty. Driving into downtown Sandusky is like visiting a cemetery. Dean rolls past a rotted-out boatyard and the boarded brick shells of once-thriving fish houses. From the rubble sprouts the skeleton of a massive condominium complex.

"Waterfront property's more valuable to sit on top of and drink martinis and look out of," he says.

When Dean's mother was a child, this is where she came to trade eggs and cheese from her family's farm for fish. "This town lived on its commercial fisheries. It supported the town during the war," says Dean.

One building has survived the decay: the office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

While the rest of Ohio government is notoriously hands-off when it comes to overseeing business -- especially the companies of major political contributors -- Wildlife agents offer no such liberties to the commercial netters.

The nine wardens here know Dean well. They've cited him countless times, sometimes for such minor infractions as finding one walleye accidentally mixed with his catfish.

"What does the Department of Agriculture do for farmers? Go out and arrest them?" Dean asks.

He's tried to fight. When Wildlife was putting commercial fishermen through a gauntlet of regulations in the '90s, Dean drove down to Columbus to appeal the rules before the House Small Business Committee. His efforts were fruitless. Now he's fighting again, but the stakes are higher. The commercial guys don't have the money to buy a lobbyist to compete with the better-funded Lake Erie Charter Boat Association.

"Their guy's buying him a steak dinner, and our guy's buying him a cup of coffee," says Dean. "It's all money."

Unfortunately, the politicians are naturally inclined to follow the money and the votes. Former state Representative Darrell Opfer (D-Oak Harbor) is the only one to ever stand up for the commercial guys.

"I kind of look at the commercial fisherman as Robin Hood, who's been fighting against the sheriff -- being ODNR -- for years and years and years," says Opfer. "They've been regulated almost out of existence."

Should the buyout go through, Dean isn't as worried about himself as much as he is crew member Gerald Niedler, who began working for Dean at 23. Niedler's beard is gray now. He has two teenagers, but fishing is the only job in these parts that can put them through college.

"It isn't right to do what they're doing," says Dean. "I believe you oughta walk in a man's shoes before you judge him."

Something was killing fish this spring. Tens of thousands of yellow perch were floating dead in the water, their rotted, mushy bodies washing up on the beaches of Lake Erie.

At first, state wildlife officials speculated that the dead were a by-product of commercial nets. But after doing tests, biologists realized they had a much bigger problem: a killer virus.

It hit the sheepshead first, then quickly spread to the perch, like something out of a Michael Crichton novel.

Outbreaks like this have everyone concerned, especially our neighbors to the north.

The Ontario side of the lake is a parallel universe. There, commercial netters are considered a valuable industry. Government regulations encourage them to thrive, rather than die off. And they pull in millions of pounds more per year than their peers in Ohio.

Talk to Canadian officials, and one gets the impression that their counterparts in Ohio are fools, swayed by the cries of sport fishermen, whose claims have no scientific standing, and steered by the blindness of expedient politics.

Peter Meisenheimer, who heads the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association, worries that the lake will become even more susceptible to viral outbreaks if Ohio outlaws commercial fishing.

"There are so many fish, there's just no room left," he says. "One of the reasons you're starting to see disease issues in Lake Erie right now is that the density of fish is just massive out there."

Meisenheimer says that Ohio legislators are so eager to please sport fishermen that they're making a shortsighted decision.

"There's this sort of simple-minded view of things: that if I knock out this other guy, then there will necessarily be more fish for me," he says. "To get rid of the commercial fishery, you're not going to see the gains that everybody seems to think they're going to see, and you might be surprised by a few unexpected negative consequences that nobody wants to think about at this point.

"From where we sit, on our side of the border," adds Meisenheimer, "it makes no sense whatsoever."

John Johnson, who oversees commercial fishing for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, shares Meisenheimer's concerns. Since lake winds generally blow north, Canadian beaches should logically have seen more sick fish wash up from the killer virus, yet Ohio's kill was exponentially larger. "Maybe densities are such that they were ripe for picking," Johnson speculates. "I mean, that's a thing we need to be afraid of."

Johnson, a sport fisherman himself, laughs at the rhetoric thrown around in Ohio to justify the buyout. The commercial fishermen, he says, are "a very simplistic scapegoat." Fishing depends on a much more complex set of equations, "like wind direction, storm events, oxygen levels in the lake, water temperatures -- a whole bunch of things. Sportsmen are traditionally looking around, saying, 'Okay, what's to blame here?' and clearly for things that are lots of times unexplainable."

But the most convincing evidence that the commercial fishermen aren't hurting the lake comes from Ohio DNR itself. In 1991, former biologist Ken Paxton wrote: "All of us wish that by further restricting the harvest we could restore perch levels to what we have seen in the past. Unfortunately, weather, environment, and competition for other fish control the numbers of perch in the lake. Fishing has a relatively small effect on the stock."

The slaughter starts at 6 a.m. sharp. At Lake Fish, unshaven men with dawn eyes and rubber smocks begin fileting yesterday's haul: 1,200 pounds of yellow perch.

Dave Bonilla, his face etched like the wall of a salt mine, slices open the bellies, expertly preparing filets.

Bonilla's one of 19 employees who may soon be jobless. It's a prospect he doesn't want to talk about.

"I go out and I fish. I wake up and I cut fish," he says. Asked what he'll do if legislators outlaw commercial fishing, Bonilla digs his knife harder into the slimy intestines. "Haven't quite thought about it."

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