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Wisconsin Maritime Museum photo exhibit depicts a changing commercial fishing industry

Some of the people with the most intimate knowledge of Lake Michigan are the commercial fishermen who make their living on these waters, catching whitefish, smelt and other species for our dinner plates.

Photo: Jim Legault

Now, an exhibition at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc shows how the commercial fishing industry has changed over the years, as has the ecology of Lake Michigan.

“Captured: The Great Lakes Commercial Fishing Photography of Jim Legault” will remain up through the end of 2019, and possibly longer. Said the museum’s director of education and public programs, Abigail Diaz, “It’s proven even more popular than we thought it would be, so we’re hoping to expand it. It’s a really important topic. Not just about commercial fishing, which is an important part of our economy in this area,” but also in terms of changes within the lake itself.

Legault took many of his photos in the 1970s, and his work provides a glimpse of which species fishermen were catching at that time, the gear they were using, and the families who formed the backbone of the industry—which is as much a way of life as it is a business.

Then, last year, Legault went out on the water again, photographing many of the same families, but also capturing changes in how the fishermen are fishing and what they’re catching. The photos are displayed alongside data, provided by Wisconsin Sea Grant, that illuminate the science behind why there is such a stark difference in the industry in just 40 years.

“The undercurrent of [the exhibition] is data from [Fisheries Specialist] Titus Seilheimer and Sea Grant,” said Diaz, “showing what is happening in the ecology of the lake.” In addition to providing content, Wisconsin Sea Grant helped underwrite the exhibition.

Michigan Sea Grant also played a role. A large infographic about commercial fishing on the Great Lakes, provided by Michigan’s Brandon Schroeder, opens the exhibit.

“Captured” is set up in a lounge-like area, where visitors can find information on Sea Grant at tables and couches.

Entry is included with general admission to the museum. To plan your visit, please visit the Wisconsin Maritime Museum’s website.