Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of a patrol boat © DNR File

Then the warden jumps back onto the awaiting patrol boat and zooms off into the ripple-crested horizon.
© DNR File

December 2011

Marine Enforcement Unit

Meet DNR's Lake Michigan warden force.

Mike Kitt

It's just after sunrise on a cool morning on the bay of Green Bay. A gill net tug belches smoke on the horizon alerting another boat to its presence. Two wardens speed toward the fishing boat in their 29-foot patrol boat.

As the boat approaches, the wardens can see fish-laden netting being hoisted through the lifting door. The patrol boat slides up to the commercial vessel's stern and a lone warden jumps onto the fantail.

"Good morning Joe. How's the fishing today?" questions the warden.

"Not too bad. Fish are running big today and there's not much for junk," (commercial fishing term for illegal or undesirable species), the fisherman says.

"I'd like to look at your fish and measure your net as you haul it in," the warden says.

"Sure, no problem," returns the fisherman. The fish are inspected and questionably sized fish are measured. The net is measured to ensure compliance with the law. No violations are found. They exchange a brief conversation about each other's family and the prospects for the Green Bay Packers' season. Then the warden jumps back onto the awaiting patrol boat and zooms off into the ripple-crested horizon.

Thirty years ago, the scene described above might have been very different. The conversation may have gone something like this.

(Fisherman): "What the #%** do you want?!"

(Warden): "I want to look at your fish and your net!"

(Fisherman): "You have no authority to come onto my boat without a search warrant – get out of here!"

(Warden): "You need to get a better lawyer – move over. We're coming on board!"

An answer to challenges

The old Lake Michigan District boasted an area of over 385 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and millions of acres of water within its boundaries, which included six counties. The magnitude of the resource made managing it a challenge.

In the 1960s, invasive lampreys nearly eliminated native lake trout. Pollution put a stranglehold on the resource. Alewife, a small sardine-like invasive species, inundated the fishery.

The Department of Natural Resources began a stocking effort to revive the suffering salmonid population. And in the 1970s and early 80s, a unique and historical set of events occurred on the Great Lakes, and in particular, on Lake Michigan. Stocking trout and salmon came to fruition and started paying big dividends in sport fishing and tourism.


New environmental protection laws also were aimed at improving water quality throughout the basin and native fish species, particularly commercial species, began to rebound. A booming economy meant people had some spending money and Great Lakes recreational use grew. Along with recreational use, commercial exploitation of the lake's fishery, especially the recovering lake trout population, increased.

Wardens responded with increased enforcement but weak commercial fishing laws and sympathetic court systems severely tied their hands. Many contacts between commercial fishermen and wardens resulted in altercations and increased animosity.

A pivotal case for change

In 1983, "Operation Gill Net," a covert investigation, uncovered the wholesale illegal harvest of fish stocks in excess of one million pounds annually from Lake Michigan. Though the number of prosecutions resulting from the sting wasn't earth shattering, it was newsworthy and the public became keenly aware of the illegal activity and called for more oversight and enforcement. It was a turning point.

DNR fisheries staff developed a plan to award individual catch quotas to each commercial fisherman, capping the amount of specific fish species they could harvest. The quotas started with Green Bay yellow perch. Fishermen had to complete a log after the day's harvest, listing the number of each species caught. They also had to report biweekly to monitor the percentage of quota harvested.

Proper enforcement required many hours waiting at the dock to ensure compliance with catch reporting. Warden duties were growing and the force was stretched thin.

Rollie Lee, then the Lake Michigan District warden, fought for and eventually received approval to form a warden unit solely devoted to Lake Michigan and tributary stream enforcement issues. The "Marine Enforcement Unit" (MEU) was born.

Improving relations

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Northeast Region's Marine Enforcement Unit. The initial plan for the unit called for an MEU supervisor and five field wardens to fill stations in Marinette, Sturgeon Bay, Two Rivers, and two positions at Green Bay. A request to also fill stations at Algoma and Sister Bay was denied.

To implement the process, some wardens were reassigned. I was assigned to Marinette, Dave Weber to Sturgeon Bay, Mike Bartz to Two Rivers and Elgin Hunter and Roger Hanson to Green Bay. Chuck Olson was named MEU supervisor.

Over the years, the unit has had several charges. The first and most important involved improving the relationship between wardens and the commercial fishing industry.

In the late 1970s and early 80s the relationship was strained, to say the least. Fights occurred, death threats delivered, knives thrown, and one warden had his jaw broken over a commercial fishing case. Wardens didn't go to the docks alone and usually went in groups of three to six. MEU wardens were told to "make it better."

One of the biggest complaints from the fishermen resulting out of Operation Gill Net was the perception that the only time they saw a warden was when they were getting a ticket for something, and that wardens did not exercise discretion in the citations they wrote. MEU team members took this to heart.

The first couple of years involved MEU members just showing up at the dock. When fishermen asked a warden what the **%## he wanted, the warden's response was, "Nothing, just wanted to see how you were doing." Unit members made it a point to ask questions, learn the industry and learn about the people. Though tense at first, a bond eventually formed between the wardens and the fishermen. Mutual understanding erased much of the animosity.

Photo of wardens inspecting a net © DNR File
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Northeast Region's Marine Enforcement Unit.
© DNR File

Though not always happy with the decisions, most commercial fishermen began to better understand DNR objectives and they didn't want to go back to the old ways. Commercial fishing and wholesale fish dealing laws were antiquated and sometimes downright unenforceable. The MEU, under the steerage of Tom Hansen, worked for legislative change. With commercial fishing industry and wholesale fish dealer input, the DNR worked through sweeping law changes acceptable to both sides.

Salmon snagging, a once useful management tool gone bad, was eliminated and vigorously enforced. MEU members helped institute a whole new mindset within streamside sport fishing ideology. Widely fluctuating water levels and increased recreational and residential shoreline use created new headaches in water regulations and zoning issues. MEU wardens worked closely with local municipalities to ensure proper use and manipulation of shorelines. The unit also took on invasive species control and water-based user conflicts.

On board

In 1999 the Sister Bay station opened adding to the MEU and although the unit's faces have changed, the mission has always been the same – to protect Lake Michigan's wealth of resources.

In its infancy, the MEU's members quickly found the need for equipment and tactics upgrades. Patrol boats were mostly inadequate for the task at hand. Over time and through the tenacity of its members, the MEU was able to show the need for, and receive newer, faster and more seaworthy patrol boats. The unit is equipped with four 29-foot patrol boats and a 30-foot cabin boat for longer deployments, as well as snowmobiles, ATVs, and other specialized equipment.

Team wardens have received specialized training in boat accident investigation, analytical investigations, sound and speed enforcement, homeland security, and more. They are available for special assignments throughout the state. Some wardens are regional dive team members as well. Team members are well-versed in wholesale fish dealer records checks and can perform a variety of long-term commercial audits. MEU members have been involved in several complex commercial fishing investigations throughout the years, involving multiple participants in different states and countries.

Team members are all expert large boat handlers and have expertise in commercial fishing equipment and practices. MEU members partner with the U.S. Coast Guard as well as local law enforcement agencies for search and rescue events, port security patrols, local disaster planning and exercises, and special event planning and coordinating.

The Marine Enforcement Unit has earned its place in natural resource enforcement in Wisconsin and is the longest-standing active marine enforcement unit in the Great Lakes states and provinces.

Mike Kitt recently retired from DNR. He was on of the original wardens in the MEU and he was stationed in Marinette.