Carlson’s Fishery: U-M alum behind 5th-generation business

A piece of Leland history leaves its mark on economy, Michigan's waters

June 12, 2018
Contact: Kim North Shine kshine@umich.edu

LELAND, Mich.—As an undergraduate student doing research at the University of Michigan Biological Station, Nels Carlson was fascinated by what he learned from the aquatic invertebrates he caught, the water samples he collected and the data he analyzed.

The waters and what lives in them were something Carlson studied informally his whole life. It’s a given when the family business is Carlson’s Fishery, a popular tourist draw in historic Fishtown on the Leland River off Lake Michigan.

Carlson, a 2005 graduate of U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability, is using lessons from his student research days to enhance the work he does as the fifth-generation owner of the fishery—a cog in the community, a contributor to the local and state economies and a player in historic, maritime preservation in Northern Michigan.

When his uncle wanted to sell the business in 2012, Carlson and a business partner bought it to keep it alive and in the family. The droves that continue to come for favorites like whitefish pate and smoked whitefish sausage are clear signs of success.

Fishing boats at dock in front of boat housesCarlson’s is also a critical source of information to protect and improve the health of Michigan’s waters and fish populations. Carlson’s is regularly called on by the Michigan Sea Grant program, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, local conservation officers and various researchers to collect or share information.

Often, the fishery saves any lamprey it brings in. Lamprey is an invasive species that damages lakes and native marine life. The lamprey is used to glean information that might lead to solutions to control invasive species.

“A lot of it has to do with keeping an open dialogue with what’s going on with the health of the lake and things we’re seeing with the fish populations,” Carlson said.

Carlson's Fisheries wood signJames Diana, director of Michigan Sea Grant at U-M, said: “Fisheries like Carlson’s provide data on size and growth and numbers of fish that we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. They’ve got a long history of being on the fishery and doing that work so they understand what is going on in a way that many people would not.”

Carlson recalls his studies as a curious college student who loved the water and Northern Michigan.

“Everything I learned at U-M has played a role in what I currently do,” Carlson said. “I draw on it so frequently it’s become second nature to me. Many things we learn, we forget. But when you put what you’ve learned into practice in your daily life, it becomes something you draw on without even realizing it.”