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You know we love our cousins to the north here at Early Returns -- from one of the most competitive congressional races in the country to its place as a bellwether for elections statewide, Erie is quite the happenin' locale these days.

Today, new ER columnist Dennis Roddy and photographer Michael Henninger focus on Erie in the second installment of their Dispatches series on the feelings of voters this year. The story centers on the challenges facing the fishing industry up north, which has been gradually replaced in the economic hierarchy by lake-based tourism.

Here's Dennis:

Erie was once the biggest exporter of freshwater fish, and in Mr. Mathers' youth 30 boats would launch in good weather. As the trade faded, Mr. Mathers signed on his son, Aaron. They became known for their whitefish, which New Yorkers bought by the ton before the net laws changed.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania introduced a $3 stamp on Lake Erie fishing licenses to compensate commercial fishermen for their losses, according to a Fish and Boat Commission spokesman. The special fee ended five years later. Since then, Erie's commercial fishing industry has become an artifact -- a business down to its last boat.

"If I still had the whitefish, this building would be paid for. I'd have a museum in here, too," Jerry Mathers said as he stood in the old beer distributorship for which he laid down $70,000 with plans for a market and growth.

Instead, the building in which the Mathers men process their fish has a sign that all but cries doom: "The Last Fisherman."

Here's the first story in the Dispatches series, datelined Good Intent, Pa.
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