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Fishing for Community

Commercial Red Cliff Band fishermen like Junior Gurnoe (left) make their living from the waters of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Photo courtesy of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Commercial Red Cliff Band fishermen like Junior Gurnoe (left) make their living from the waters of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Photo courtesy of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

On a typical November morning during herring season, Brian Bainbridge hops on board his commercial fishing boat at 5:00 am, hits the lights, and fires up the engine. Crew members emerge from the darkness, one at a time, to take up their positions on the deck. They check their cold-weather gear, their gill nets, and their life-saving devices before heading out into the blue-black dawn of Lake Superior.

Fishermen like Bainbridge and his crew, who are all members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, know the dangers of this capricious inland sea: The wind and biting cold. How out of nowhere, especially in late fall, fifteen-foot waves can suddenly swell and swallow an entire boat. If all goes well, they return to the mainland with large plastic bins of herring to sell to one of the processing plants in Bayfield County. In years past, the fishermen sold mostly to wholesalers like Bodin Fisheries. Today they have another option: the new Red Cliff Fish Company, a tribally owned and operated, zero-waste processing plant and retail shop on the Red Cliff Reservation just north of Bayfield.

Justin Maki brings up a load of lake herring from Duffy's Dock. Photo courtesy of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.The Red Cliff Fish Company processes and sells a variety of wild-caught fish from Lake Superior, including lake herring, whitefish, lake trout, and walleye. Fall is herring season and so, on this November day at the fish company, it’s all hands on deck—the deck being a 3,500-square-foot building with a processing plant, office space, commercial kitchen, and retail shop. By the end of the month they will have processed 360,000 pounds of herring, exceeding all predictions and exhausting the small staff and group of volunteers. 

Indeed, a feasibility study the company paid for with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Development program predicted 150,000 pounds as a reasonable goal for their first herring season. But Justin Maki, assistant manager for the Red Cliff Fish Company, says he “made a goal to double that” while still respecting sustainable fishery levels. Maki’s ambition and experience, derived from his nearly six-year stint as master smokehouse technician at Bodin Fisheries, have helped the tribe with this new endeavor. “I’m a firm believer that if that fish is still swimming,” Maki says with a grin, “I’m going to try and get it to your plate before it stops.”

Of course, it’s not just Maki who is responsible for doubling production. That distinction is shared with the tribal fishermen who bring in the catch as well as Red Cliff Fish Company employees, tribal council members and volunteers, and a plethora of Red Cliff governmental agencies who have worked hard to ensure the success of the company.

“It’s a community venture as opposed to a private commercial venture,” says Rick Peterson, the chairman for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Peterson says that the community approach starts with supporting tribal commercial fishermen, independent contractors whose livelihoods depend on getting a fair price for their catch.

Red Cliff commercial fishermen have long worked the waters of Lake Superior. In recent years, they have been responsible for harvesting nearly 11% of all Great Lakes lake trout, 17% of lake herring (or cisco), and 6% of whitefish. But, until now, there was no processing capacity on the reservation. With the new Red Cliff Fish Company, fishermen can rely on the processing as well as the retail networks and distribution capabilities of the company to ensure they get a fair price for their efforts.

In fall 2020, Red Cliff Fish Company was paying 85 cents a pound for herring, 20 cents more than other processing plants in the region. To get an idea of how this benefits the fishermen, consider this: There are 33 registered Red Cliff commercial fishing boat license holders who bring in an average of 600,000 pounds of fish per year. For them, that extra 20 cents adds up to around $120,000, or an average of $3,636 more per boat. 

On a typical weekday during fall herring season, fishermen drop off their bins full of gleaming fish at Duffy’s Dock, which the company helped expand to accommodate ten commercial fishing boats. As soon as company manager Daisy Perez-Defoe gets word that the boats are coming in—usually between 11:00 am and 7:00 pm—she and two other full-time employees, a school of part-timers hired for herring season, and a clutch of volunteers from the Red Cliff Treaty Natural Resources Division scurry down to the dock. They use forklifts to haul the fish from the dock to the plant and then weigh and process them as quickly and safely as possible. 

Lake herring that are pre-ordered “in the round”—whole, with skin on and bones in—are cleaned, packaged, and placed on a company truck for immediate delivery. Next, the roe, or eggs, of the remaining herring are carefully removed and saved for later sale to a client who jars them and sells them as a specialty product to Swedish customers. Whether skin-on and deboned, or deboned without skins, the roe-less fish are prepared for restaurants, such as Legendary Waters Resort & Casino and Maggie’s Restaurant in Bayfield and Harvest in Madison, as well as for Second Harvest food pantry in Minneapolis. The remaining fish are either sent to the smoker, vacuum-sealed in environmentally friendly packaging and frozen, or carefully laid out in the refrigerated glass case of the company’s small storefront.

Perez-Defoe oversees the retail end of the company. Like many people in the Red Cliff community, she wants this venture to succeed. “We’re hoping that within the year the Red Cliff Fish Company name and product will be [seen] throughout the United States,” says Perez-Defoe, noting that she plans to partner “with a variety of native food producers from all over the U.S.—California, Colorado, and North Dakota—to bring in products that pair well with fish,” such as olive oil and corn meal. She also plans to sell whole fish and specialty products like smoked herring spread to food co-ops in the region.

Hoop houses at Mino Bimaadiziiwin Tribal Farm shelter seedlings from spring time frost and accelerate summer growth. In the Ojibwe language, mino bimaadiziiwin means “return to the good life.” Photo courtesy of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.After the day’s fish processing is completed, the remains are collected and taken to Mino Bimaadiziiwin Tribal Farm, where it’s churned into compost. The compost, which is the final product of Red Cliff Fish Company’s zero-waste process, “will go into the garden beds of the community farm … to grow nutritious, healthy food for the community,” says ecologist Gabrielle Vanbergen. 

As the deputy administrator of the Red Cliff Treaty Natural Resources Division, Vanbergen managed the initial seed money for the construction of the zero-waste facility and its composting trials. The money came from the 2018 Keepseagle v. Vilsack settlement, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture was successfully sued for discrimination against minority farmers and ranchers dating back to the mid-1900s.

While the tribe invested heavily in the company, the project was pushed through the finish line by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which supported road construction and the expansion of Duffy’s Dock, and from the Administration for Native Americans within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provided staff wages to help get the business started.

Vanbergen notes that several non-tribal members were crucial to the project’s success, including her predecessor Chad Abel, who wrote several of the grants, as well as James Thannum, an employee of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, who helped with the grants and trained many Red Cliff fishermen and company staff on food safety procedures and advised on equipment purchases. 

From her perspective as an ecologist, Vanbergen says she can “look at the whole cycle” and really understand how the Red Cliff Fish Company allows the tribe to “help with managing the resources of the lake and also with harvesting the resources.” She ticks off the benefits, noting how the tribe is “able to provide a livable wage to the fishermen bringing that harvest in—and to make that harvest available to the community at an affordable price, [promoting] the food sovereignty of this community.”

For Vanbergen, Perez-Defoe, Maki, and everyone else at the Red Cliff Fish Company, the concept of food sovereignty, of being able to control where your food comes from, is inexorably tied to sustainability. Members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have been fishing these waters for hundreds of years. As such, the tribe takes tremendous pride in and responsibility for preserving the lake’s resources.

“Sustainability is a huge, huge, issue,” says Red Cliff Band chairman Peterson. “As Native Americans going back generations, the last thing we want to do is see the resources depleted.”

For this reason, the tribe annually engages in a three-way agreement with their neighbors to the south, the Bad River Band of Chippewa, and with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to monitor the health and size of fish populations in Lake Superior. Each partner employs biologists to gather vital information. Collectively they analyze the data and use it to set up a management plan that benefits everyone: the fish, the environment, and the recreational and commercial fishermen. Though the DNR sets up annual harvest quotas based on the data, it’s the tribes that actually regulate the harvest in Lake Superior and prevent overfishing of commercial species. Tribal fishermen who sell their fish to Red Cliff Fish Company must follow these regulations, thus contributing to the overall sustainability of the lake’s resources for generations to come. 

Fresh-caught, smoked lake herring is placed in environmentally friendly packaging for sale. Justin Maki brings up a load of lake herring from Duffy's Dock. Photo courtesy of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.Red Cliff Fish Company’s business model views the fiscal and cultural health of the tribe as key indicators of the company’s success. That health and success are evident in the processing plant that enables tribal fishermen to do work that their ancestors have done for generations while simultaneously remaining true to their values as protectors of the lake’s resources. 

Success is also seen in the tribe’s generosity. Traditionally, the Chippewa value hospitality and the sharing of food, as demonstrated at community feasts and pow wows that offer heaping servings of wild rice, fresh corn, chicken, and fish to all who attend, whether members of the tribe or not. Like these events, the Red Cliff Fish Company is already becoming a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“During the pandemic when everything was shut down, we were able to give our community members over a ton of white fish, and we donated [three hundred pounds] to a couple of food banks off the reservation,” says Peterson, with a gleam of pride in his eye.

Peterson has a right to be proud of a community investment that is paying off in more ways than one. Over ten years in the making, the Red Cliff Fish Company is helping the tribe achieve a multitude of goals, including increasing local food control, maximizing the fisheries’ economic potential, preserving Red Cliff’s commercial fishing tradition, and perpetuating the tribe’s legacy of living in harmony with the environment.

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Hope McLeod is an award-winning journalist, poet, and songwriter who lives in Washburn. She’s penned two books: The Place We Begin, a collection of poetry, and Have I Got a Story for You, a compilation of her best newspaper stories.

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