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Once a vibrant way of life along Lake Michigan's shoreline, the commercial fishing industry has all but disappeared from the lake today, especially in the southern half. Various factors, from over-fishing and invasive species to changes in the food industry, have taken a toll on fish populations and fishermen through the years, according to author Joe Kutchera. And the story of what happened to Lake Michigan's once-thriving fishing industry includes the stories of families like Kutchera's, which made its living in the fish business for 100 years in Milwaukee.

Kutchera will share some of those stories in a community education program titled “Faces of a Fish Empire,” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 10, at Dewey's restaurant, 600 Main St. (second floor, elevator accessible). Presented by the Racine Lighthouse and Maritime Preservation Society, or RLAMPS (http://rlamps.org/), the program is free and open to the public.

Because seating is limited, those interested in attending are encouraged to RSVP early (before May 8). Reservations can be made by calling 414-228-8947 or sending an email to bkw@crestwoodcreek.com.

Kutchera's multimedia program is inspired by a book of the same name, “Faces of a Fish Empire (A Visual History of Empire Fish Company and the Decline of Commercial Fishing in Wisconsin),” which was written by Joe and designed by his brother, Andrew (http://joekutchera.com/books/faces-fish-empire/). It features a series of portraits, photographed by their father, Tom, during his years running the Empire Fish Co.

Tom Kutchera shot the portraits of his employees as a hobby, never thinking they would someday be shown to the world, Joe said. They'd been stored in a back office for years, until Tom's 2016 funeral when his family displayed them in albums, where they were discovered by a professional photographer in attendance.

She curated an exhibition of Tom's photos, which will next be shown at the Door County Maritime Museum July through November. And the exhibition inspired Tom's sons to create the book, telling the story behind their father's photos.

For Joe Kutchera — who grew up working at Empire Fish and now runs his own digital marketing and content advising business in Virginia — the book and the program have been a passion project. His father's photos not only reflect the very familial environment that was Lake Michigan's commercial fishing industry in those days, Kutchera said, but the role that the lake played in people's lives then, as a source of both food and employment.

“It's about sharing stories, and sharing history,” he said.

Kutchera's program is one of a series of Education Nights offered by RLAMPS, whose primary mission is preservation through education. The nonprofit organization, formerly known as the Friends of the Wind Point Lighthouse, was originally formed in 1999 to preserve, and educate the public about, the history of the Wind Point Lighthouse.

In 2016, its mission was expanded to include all of Racine's lighthouses and rich maritime history. Through the years, the organization has supported a variety of projects at the Wind Point Lighthouse, including restoration of the Fog Horn Building and the Fuel House Building; development of the former, on-site museum and gift shop; establishment of the Memorial Brick Garden; presentation of educational programs; conducting tours for school and private groups; and various lighthouse maintenance projects.

While the organization's maritime museum and gift shop are no longer located on the lighthouse grounds, RLAMPS offers an online artifact museum, and sells lighthouse-related gift items on its website, http://rlamps.org. RLAMPS welcomes new members and interested persons can find more information on its website. They can also contact the organization via email at info@rlamps.org.

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