Emptiest Catch? The Quest for Local Fish and Lake-to-Table Dining in Cleveland

On a rainy Monday morning, fisherwoman Holly Szuch steers her boat to the loading dock at Catanese Classic Seafoods in the Flats. She and her husband unload crates of yellow perch that are so fresh, they're actually still flopping around in the beds of ice.

Szuch, who lives in Toledo, married into a fishing family that's been casting nets into Lake Erie's waters since 1928. As she puts it, "For a woman, you either marry into it or you're born into it — it's not like Barbie ever came out with a fishing doll." During peak season, she and her husband often work 16-hour days, rising at 1:30 a.m. to head out onto the water.

For the past few years, the fishing in Lake Erie has been pretty good, as walleye and perch populations –have remained steady, dipping only slightly. Commercial fisheries in Canada are the only ones that catch walleye, because the Ohio Department of Natural Resources believes that commercial fishing could harm this fragile population. But yellow perch are fair game within annual limits. Once Szuch reaches the quota she's allowed to pull out of the lake, she heads to the shore to catch rough fish like white bass, porgie and sheepshead, which are often sold outside of Northeast Ohio.

"I'd rather be out on the lake than sitting in an office behind a desk," says Szuch, who says she uses sustainable methods to fish and spends winters catching up on sleep, repairing nets and getting ready for spring. "Every morning, I get to see a great sunrise."

Yet while the day's catch of 800 pounds of yellow perch is pretty decent, troubled waters may lie ahead for Szuch and other fishermen. The harmful algae blooms that threatened Toledo's water supply, caused by excess levels of phosphorus delivered by the runoff from rivers and streams, could impact fish health. Algae blooms haven't yet come to Cleveland this year, but observers say that they could be heading this way someday. Another difficulty facing Lake Erie is the introduction of non-native species. And the challenges facing the lake are accelerating due to global climate change.

"The Lake Erie walleye and yellow perch population are relatively healthy, but they are challenged by some issues, water quality being one of them," says Jeff Fisher, Lake Erie program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Others put it more forcefully. "Lake Erie is in trouble, and getting worse by the year," Michael Wines wrote in an Aug. 4 story in the New York Times. "Flooded by tides of phosphorus washed from fertilized farms, cattle feedlots and leaky septic systems, [it] is increasingly being choked each summer by thick mats of algae, much of it poisonous ... while there is talk of action — and particularly in Ohio, real action — there also is widespread agreement that efforts to address the problem have fallen woefully short."

Toledo's water crisis garnered international attention, with images of water glasses filled with green sludge going viral on the Internet. Yet there's a smaller, less-talked-about impact coming down the pipe. Lake Erie's declining health could stymie the popularity and availability of local fish, harming a lake-to-table trend that's just starting to take off.

From hook to cook

Anyone who grew up in Northeast Ohio and was alive during the 1970s has memories of Lake Erie as a national symbol of water pollution. We all know the attention our lake has gotten over the years, for its degradation as well as its slow, uphill recovery.

"We have generational memories of a very polluted lake," says Jessica Ferrato, conservation program coordinator for the Clean Water Campaign of the Ohio Sierra Club. "It wasn't that long ago that lead and mercury were flowing into the lake. In the last 40 years, we've done a lot to curtail that, but people are still rightfully skeptical."

So it's not surprising that many diners looked down their noses at lake fish, believing they weren't safe to eat and choosing, say, the salmon instead. Yet as Lake Erie's health has improved, attitudes have changed. The growing popularity of lake fish is driven in part by chefs like Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern and Doug Katz of Fire, who tout the benefits of eating local foods. Not only are lake fish delicious and good for you, the logic goes, but your dollars go to support local businesses and reduce your environmental impact.

Sawyer and Katz recently teamed up with Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, which helps people make healthy, sustainable choices about seafood, to host a "trash fish" dinner. The menu introduced diners to less common lake fish like mullet and buffalo fish.

"I treat the lake the way we treated farms 10 to 15 years ago," says Sawyer. "By talking about it, by using our purchasing power as a restaurant, we can eventually get to a place where it's more sustainable and recognizable than it's ever been before."

We still have a long way to go. About 90 percent of the seafood that Americans eat is imported, as seafood expert Paul Greenberg points out in his book American Catch. Additionally, one-third of the seafood that's caught in the U.S. is shipped abroad.

"Why is it that the locavore movement has been only a terrestrial movement to date?" Greenberg asks in his book. "Why doesn't my hometown of New York City ... have an abundant supply of local wild seafood? Every coastal city could have its own local fish again, we just have make it a priority to bring fish back into our lives."

In a recent story in Belt Magazine, examining why the walleye we eat comes from Canada, Greenberg is quoted as saying, "There have been serious pollution issues in the Great Lakes, but one of the ways you get the public to address those pollution issues is to have them have the seafood that comes from those lakes as a part of their diet."

There are 10 commercial fisheries operating in the Lake Erie waters of Ohio, and they pull about 4.5 million pounds of fish out of the lake each year, says ODNR. There are no official numbers about how much of the seafood that we eat in Northeast Ohio comes from Lake Erie, yet it's safe to say that it's a small sliver of the total amount. That's partially because it's easier — and often cheaper — to choose a non-local option.

As reporter Dan McGraw puts it in the Belt story, which delves into the issue of why ODNR doesn't allow more walleye fishing, Lake Erie fish have lagged behind other local foods: "While many local farms are raising vegetables and livestock that are finding their ways to market, locally caught seafood is barely on the radar. Lake to table is fairly minute."

Is there a local fish shortage?

In part, this is because many people are still concerned about the safety of eating local fish. Mercury from Ohio's coal-burning power plants builds up in fish tissue, which is serious, yet advocates note that it's perfectly healthy to eat lake fish in moderation. The Ohio EPA says you can eat about one meal of walleye and two meals of yellow perch weekly, while bottom-dwellers like catfish are only supposed to be eaten once a month.

As generational memories of a polluted lake fade away and lake fish regains popularity, supply becomes the bigger problem. Szuch says she could sell two or three times her annual catch, yet the quota for perch was reduced by 10 percent in the past two years. This is happening for good reasons: ODNR wants to ensure that there are enough fish in the lake to breed healthy populations. Yet it has a trickle-down effect on the economy.

This is the irony of living on our Great Lake: It's sometimes easier to find farm-raised salmon from Oregon or tilapia from South America than yellow perch or walleye from Lake Erie. Even when summer's bounty is at its overflowing peak, the flaky, buttery lake fish we've come to know and love is often in short supply. In part, that's because perch and walleye prefer colder water, so they swim deeper and are harder to catch. Yet it's also because lake fish are in flux, buffeted by forces that threaten this resource.

During recent visits, Kate's Fish at the West Side Market stocked only walleye in terms of lake catches, while Dave's and Giant Eagle had no lake fish, even though the frozen section was stuffed to the gills with fish from Vietnam and New Zealand.

Regan Reik, head chef at Pier W, one of the region's most prominent seafood restaurants, says lack of supply has led him to pull some dishes off his menu.

"I think people really want it this time of year, especially in summertime," he says. "The ironic thing is that this time of year is when it is often hardest to get the product."

Industry veterans argue that despite the algae blooms, Lake Erie is still healthy. As long as this trend continues, they say, interest in local foods will propel the lake fish market. John and Jim Catanese, the brothers behind Catanese Classic Seafoods, last year spent $1.3 million upgrading their riverfront fish processing facility and just bought a building across the street on Merwin Avenue to facilitate expansion.

Classic Seafoods, which opened in 2004 with a handful of employees, now has 90 people working there. Years ago, it could be hard to find fresh, high-quality fish, and the industry was rife with shady players who flouted the rules (the owners of the now-bankrupt State Fish were fined for selling above their quota). Now, if you're eating lake fish, chances are good it comes from Classic, which has raised the bar on quality.

"The farm-to-table and local food movements are trends that everyone is following," says John Catanese. "People realize the benefits of eating local fish outweigh the risks."

Many local chefs agree. They're selling more local fish than ever — when they get their hands on it. Sawyer uses whitebaits on the seafood salad at Noodlecat, perch at the Greenhouse Tavern and walleye at Trentina. Yet he, too, struggles with supply issues. "I love it, but I don't think there are enough sources of dock-to-door distributors," he says.

Not every restaurateur is sold. Some chefs contacted for this story expressed concern that customers often get "bored" with perch and walleye, and that the recent high-profile problems with Lake Erie's water supply could quash diners' appetites for local fish — especially if the state doesn't address the algae blooms and they get worse.

There are currently about 120 million perch in Lake Erie, and they are considered to be relatively healthy. If the population goes up, the safe harvest level goes up, says ODNR, which is still studying the issue. "If we've got more fish in the lake, we can safely remove more."

Don't throw away trash fish

Even as politicians, environmental groups and farm lobbyists wrangle about the best ways to reduce the phosphorus going into Lake Erie, there's another resource in the fish economy that's being tossed overboard every day. According to Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, there are as many as 13 Lake Erie species that are considered good eating.

Most Northeast Ohioans only know about two of them: walleye and perch. Yet there are plenty of other lake fish that you can eat, including white bass, white perch, buffalo, catfish, mullet, sheepshead, sturgeon, porgy, lake drum, lake trout and white fish.

These underutilized species are alternately known as "trash fish," "rough fish" or "bicatch," depending on the species and who you're talking to. Chefs often use the term trash fish for its ironic impact, while fishermen use the term rough fish. The technical term is bicatch, and it simply refers to extra fish that get caught in fishing nets.

What happens to these extra fish when they're caught? Ohio's commercial fishermen often throw them back or sell them to fish distributors out of state. They may taste great when cooked on the grill, but they're not considered in-demand like perch or walleye.

So why aren't more of these fish eaten locally? Some of them are. Catanese says the market for bicatch fish is growing, and part of the reason is that chefs, seafood buyers and consumers are becoming more aware of these species, so distributors are making them more available. Yet these same distributors also acknowledge that the majority of these species are not easy to find, and are probably being sold outside Cleveland.

Szuch catches rough fish in the spring and fall, and sells most of her fish to markets in Detroit and New York City. While many ethnic populations already know how good these fish are, she says Northeast Ohioans are just beginning to catch on.

Bicatch could be a huge market. Of the 4.5 million pounds of fish pulled out of Lake Erie each year by Ohio's commercial fisheries, only 25 percent are yellow perch. That means the other 3.4 million pounds — the majority — are "underutilized species."

Sawyer says that chefs could introduce Clevelanders to these fish and create a bigger market, but they'd have to be easier to obtain. "It can be hard to get these fish, especially the obscure ones," he says. "But if you think about a commercial fishery, those nets don't just have walleye or perch in them. There's a whole ecosystem in that lake, and I think it's important to take the time to utilize everything in that net."

Still, it's not an easy sell. Marty Gaul, seafood buyer at Heinen's, says her store only carries perch, walleye and white bass because it's harder to sell lesser-known species.

Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, says bicatch is a huge seafood sustainability issue. In many parts of the world, undesirable fish are thrown back into the water (usually dead). Yet in Ohio, trap nets allow these fish to be tossed back alive. If Clevelanders ate more bicatch, we really would be on the forefront of good stewardship of our lake.

From warehouses to fish farms

No matter how many different kinds of fish we pull from Lake Erie, the body of water is still a limited natural resource that we are charged with caring for. Quotas and regulations are in place to protect fish populations and make sure they remain healthy. A century ago, the blue pike became extinct in Lake Erie because of our greed and lack of regulations.

Yet such limitations do not exist for farmed fish, which can be a healthy alternative to wild fish, especially because they're not exposed to mercury. Moreover, if fish are farmed locally, eating them is helping to support a local, sustainable business.

That's the case with Mark Lyons, a former high school biology teacher who launched Cleveland Urban Aquaculture two years ago in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood. Lyons became interested in fish when he was a kid; it was the only pet his parents would let him keep, and soon the curious 8-year-old was breeding goldfish.

Lyons has sold tilapia to local chefs and Asian markets for the past two years, and now he believes he's found the formula for success. He and his wife just purchased a 35,000-square-foot building on East 70th Street. Using the EB5 program, which allows foreign investors to put money into U.S. businesses and earn a green card, they've raised $500,000, just enough money to buy the building and a new tank system.

Lyons came up with the idea when he lived on East 33rd Street in Asiatown and watched trucks unload thousands of live fish to the Asian markets every week. One day he stopped a driver and asked him where they'd come from. The farmer had traveled from Dayton and explained that he'd created a fish farm there but was about to retire.

Fish farming can be a risky business. To be successful, Lyons has to sell thousands of pounds of tilapia to Asian markets in Cleveland and other cities weekly. He also has to convince chefs to buy his gutted fish for $6.99 to $7.99 per pound, which is a bit higher than the cost of fresh fillets from South America. Lyons is also considering buying fish processing equipment and selling his own fillets for $9.99 per pound.

"The biggest challenge is all of the Asian imports," he says. "We can't compete with them, in part because they get breaks from their governments. It's an unfair game."

Still, Lyons says there's demand for his product. At the Asian markets in Cleveland and other cities, customers can walk up to the counter, pick out one of his tilapia that's swimming around in the tank, and have it filleted right there. It doesn't get fresher than that. He's also had success convincing local chefs to put his fish on their menus. Once his operation is up and running this fall, he'll also do a limited retail business.

Finally, Cleveland Urban Aquaculture is going to raise saltwater shrimp too. Lyons says the local-food movement is driving changes in the seafood market and supermarkets are responding. Places like Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati have large seafood counters with huge selections of seafood. Aquaculture in the U.S. is beginning to accelerate as a means of filling empty warehouse space and creating local, sustainable seafood businesses.

"I grew up in Cleveland, and I want to see this happen in the city," says Lyons. "I had this idea, and instead of looking to someone else to do it, I thought, 'Why not me?'"

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