In the Great Lakes' most productive fishing grounds, dead zones are eroding livelihoods

From his lakefront dock in Crystal Rock, 70 miles west of Cleveland, Dean Koch still gleefully reminisces on his career as a commercial fisherman in the heyday.

At his first industry meeting in Sandusky in the late 1960s, fishing moguls booked the entire Holiday Inn and filled all the rooms. Back then, fishermen set hundreds of miles of gill nets and thousands of trap nets in Lake Erie. The amount of fish in one of his trap nets could easily fill an entire boat. He would sell those bountiful catches to one of the roughly 30 fish markets along the Ohio coastline.

Now, Koch, 70, says, the number of fishermen who hold commercial licenses could sit around the small round table in his garage. Some days, his crew, led by his son Drew, is lucky if the fish inside all 12 of their trap nets fill the boat. And there are only two fishhouses that buy their catches.

After decades of pollution, habitat degradation, overfishing and numerous waves of invasive species, Lake Erie is still the most productive fishery in the Great Lakes and among the most valuable natural resources in the United States. Its reputation as the most fertile fishing ground in the region is owed to its warm, shallow waters that allow algae, the base of the aquatic food chain, to thrive.

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