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

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"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.

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