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

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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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