by Daniel J. McGraw
As the boat comes into the dock space on the Cuyahoga River — after scooting under the Center Street swing bridge and avoiding some of the high school crew teams sculling by – it is apparent the 40-foot battleship grey flatbed doesn’t have a lot of cargo. About 20 black plastic crates are piled up on deck with crushed ice topping them off, but most of the containers are stacked within each other because they have nothing in them.
Holly and Mike Szuch are on board, along with two deck hands, and all four work on unloading the cargo. In this case the cargo is Lake Erie perch, most of them about a foot or so long, some still flapping around with the gills pulsating. Their boat is parked behind Catanese Classic Seafood in the Flats, and their catch will be cleaned and gutted and filleted and then sold off to restaurants and grocery stores in the region. A lot will be in the stores and restaurants that afternoon.
Holly and Mike are in their yellow plastic coveralls, a husband and wife fishing team from just east of Toledo, and the business has been in Mike’s family since the 1930s. They weigh their catch closely, keeping track of their poundage to report to state regulators, and then their containers full of fish are scanned by a field worker for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources under a program in which computer chips have been put in perch to track where they swim.
If you eat perch in the Cleveland area, there is a good chance that if came from the Szuch’s boats. But theirs is a dying business in the Great Lakes – partly because the local food movement hasn’t caught on with seafood in the same way other food sources have and partly because the state of Ohio and other Great Lakes states aren’t real keen on commercial fishing. “Ohio favors catching fish that you can hang on a wall more than catching fish that you can put on a plate,” Holly Szuch says with a smirk as she spreads crushed ice on a crate full of yellow perch.
Noted author and seafood guru Paul Greenberg puts it very succinctly: “Why is it that the locavore movement has been only a terrestrial movement to date?” Greenberg asks. “Why doesn’t my hometown of New York City, a City situated on what was once an incredibly productive estuary, 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.”
The fish on the Szuch boat are not caught with rods and reels and lines, but in trap nets, half-mile long funnel-like contraptions that are anchored to the bottom of the lake that the Szuchs’ move around as they follow the fish. This load is only about 500 pounds (they usually bring in a few thousand), in part because the weather during the previous few days had been very tricky, very windy out of the northeast with a big wave chop. This northeast wind plays tricks on the fish, making the easterly flowing current a bit different, and in this case, the place where the Szuchs thought the fish would be just didn’t have the numbers.
“It’s funny because sometimes the charter fishing boats follow us around because they think we know where all the fish will be,” Holly says as she pushed another crate through the computer chip scanning device. “But we’re never really sure either. It all depends on the water temperature and the winds and how the fish move around. We have an idea about what parts of the lake the perch will be at different parts of the year, but we’re still guessing.”
Bill Gullo, the Catanese Classic Seafood purchaser, is disappointed with the number from the Szuch Fisheries boat, but understands. The cold winter has left Lake Erie a few degrees colder than it would usually be at this time of year, and more rain than usual changes the water slightly, and all these factors have the fish swimming around in unpredictable ways.
And this comes at a time where Lake Erie perch and walleye are becoming standard fare at many restaurants, including high-end ones. What used to be considered trash fish from the filthy lake is now considered a highly desirable local food. But it is still often hard to find and far more expensive than farm-raised tilapia from Asia.
“We sell all the walleye and perch the second we get it in,” Gullo says. “I think the local food movement is gaining a little ground in Ohio with regards to Lake Erie, and the fish we are getting is safe and very tasty and local, and people are buying into that.”
But as you watch the Szuchs’ catch get processed through the Catanese prep rooms, there is another thing that is very noticeable: There is no walleye in their plastic crates. They catch them in their nets out in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie, but as they haul in those long nets, they keep the perch and throw all the walleye back. Because it is illegal for commercial fishing companies to catch walleye in Lake Erie’s Ohio waters.
The walleye you eat in the restaurant or buy in the grocery stores is most likely from Canada and probably frozen at some point. The other states on Lake Erie (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York), allow some commercial fishing but their harvest numbers are miniscule by the quotas arrived at by the states. Suffice it to say, Lake Erie fishing – which accounts for about two thirds of all fish caught in the Great Lakes – is all about Ontario and Ohio.
In 2013, a little more than one million walleye were caught in both the Ohio and Ontario waters of Lake Erie. The Ontario harvest was mostly by commercial fishing; the Ohio total was all hauled in by sports fishing. Much of the Ontario walleye was imported to the United States.
Sports fishermen in Ohio can legally bag six walleye a day. The state of Ohio says that 1,083,395 walleye were caught in Lake Erie by hook and line anglers in 2013, and these fishing interests generated $750 million a year in economic activity.
But there is an odd number that no one is really looking at in terms of the walleye sports fishing quota. The sports anglers in Ohio were permitted to catch about 1.7 million walleye in 2013, but they left more than 600,000 of their quota in the lake. Every year it is about the same number percentage-wise. The multi-state and duel-country Great Lakes Fishery Commission determines that sports fisherman from the Ohio side of Lake Erie can take in the 1.7 million walleye, because that amount is safe and sustainable and without any danger of over-fishing. But the sports anglers leave about 30 percent to 40 percent in the waters.
Holly Szuch sees a big problem in this policy. The way she sees it, Ohio has a locally grown product (walleye), a big underserved market (consumers seeking local food options), and small businesses willing to invest in that market (like hers), and the state has consistently said “no” and “never” to commercial walleye fishing. “The state is always saying we have a crisis in our fish numbers and a mentality that we can never change anything, even when we show them their own numbers say there isn’t a problem ” she says.
“The sports fishing industry has consistently told the state that those walleye are ours, and no one else can have any of them, even if they don’t catch them,” Szuch says. “The state bends over backward to keep them happy, so we leave fish in the lake that we have determined could be caught safely and in sustainable numbers, and then we import the fish we want to eat from Canada. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Well it does make sense if you throw in the economic and political elements. While the economic development is estimated from sports fishing is estimated at $750 million, the Ohio commercial fishing industry comes in at about $50 million. About 600,000-plus fishing licenses are sold in the state each year, bringing in more than $7 million. That is also a big voting bloc.
Fishing charter boat owners are well- connected within the Ohio tourism industry, and it is an easy sell to keep commercial fishing interests out of the walleye biz when you take the state legislators out for a day of fishing and drinking and eating. Taking a ride on the Szuch boat and hauling in nets isn’t quite the same experience.
“It will never happen,” says Ohio Rep. Chris Redfern of Catawba, of the possibility of walleye being allowed to be fished commercially. “There are hundreds of charter boat captains and they have worked with the state and with regulators to show there is a demand for walleye from the sports fishing industry. There are ten licensed commercial fishing businesses. It is easy to do the numbers.”
“I’m well aware there is a demand for walleye from the consumer,” Redfern says. “But we have to balance the interests of the two countries and the states around Lake Erie, and at this point, we have stability and we need to keep it that way. So Ohio’s best interests are in the sports fishing side of things when it comes to walleye fishing.”
In the introduction to his new book, American Catch (Penguin Press 2014), Greenberg points out some rather shocking numbers about the American seafood market. About 90 percent of the seafood that Americans eat is imported from foreign countries, and about one-third of what Americans catch gets sold to foreigners. For Greenberg, the numbers are out of whack for one main reason: “There is no more intimate experience we can have with our environment than to eat from it,” he writes.
In recent years there has been a movement to eat more locally grown food — farm-to-table as they like to call it — and restaurants and grocers are wading into that market for many reasons: fresh food tastes better, environmental pollution from shipping is reduced, smaller independent food producers can make a living, and different regions can develop different their own specialties. But 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.
What is happening in Lake Erie and across the country, is that the sports and commercial fishing sectors are at odds over who should get most of the seafood catch. Up until the 1970s and 1980s, the commercial fishing interests did what they wanted, Greenberg told Belt Magazine, “but the sports sector has now gone out of control.”
“I respect the sports fishing sector,” Greenberg said, “and I don’t mind someone going out and catching dinner. But sports fishermen have to realize that the oceans and lakes in this country are not just an open resource for just them. What is happening in the Great Lakes and the oceans waters in America is that governments setting quotas for the amount of seafood caught are privatizing a public resource.”
What Greenberg is talking about is the setting of quotas for fishing that gives more to the sports fishermen, less to the commercial interests, thus making it more difficult to stay in business. In the Gulf of Mexico, sports fishermen and commercial interest are fighting over the quotas for red snapper and grouper. In New England, charter and recreational groups are working to end commercial fishing for striped bass, a popular local fish at restaurants. Owners of Alaskan fishing charter boats are trying to restrict the commercial catch of sockeye and king salmon in some of the states coastal waters.
There are a number of factors at play in this emphasis on sports fishing over commercial: seafood is imported at much cheaper prices, environmentalists often think any fishing with nets is harmful to oceanic environment, sports fishing interests have lobbied hard that they are not “harmful” and have more public participation, and the aging population of baby boomers are looking to the rod and reel more so as they retire. And the sports fishing advocates love to trot out the big amount of money that these walleye charter boats operating out of the west basin of Lake Erie bring to the economy.
Greenberg points out in his book that the health of America’s oceans and estuaries and saltwater marshes and lakes and rivers have a direct relationship to how Americans eat seafood. When American’s eat more locally wild caught seafood, he writes, they are more aware of the health of their waters. “There have been serious pollution issues in the Great Lakes,” Greenberg told Belt Magazine, “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.”
But there are two questions that need to be answered in the debate over whether walleye should be able to be commercially fished with nets in Ohio waters. First, is whether there are enough walleye in the lake to allow the fishers like the Szuchs and others to take a few hundred thousand each year? And second, do people really care if the walleye they eat in a Cleveland restaurant is caught ten miles away by Ohio fishermen, or 60 miles away by Canadians. And do they care if the walleye they are eating was in the lake yesterday, or last in the lake last week.
In an interview this summer in the Columbus Dispatch, biologist Jeff Tyson, the Lake Erie programs administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife was asked if they had a fairly exact estimate of how many walleye are swimming around in Lake Erie year to year. No, Tyson said, and in order to do so “We’d have to drain the lake and count the fish, and we could do that only once.”
But they do have estimates, and the latest one says that there are about 23 million walleye swimming around in Lake Erie this summer. Two or three decades ago, some estimated there might have been three times that many. Another number is very important: Canada and the other states bordering Lake Erie have set a “crisis” level for walleye at 15 million. What this means for the scientists and state regulators who study fish populations is that the walleye numbers are OK right now at 23 million, but too close to the crisis level to allow commercial fisheries to cast their nets for walleye, even if their quota was set at 100,000.
Compounding this number estimate is the walleye hatchlings from 2003 were a huge number and no one knows why. There were no environmental changes or problems like algae blooms before or since that year that are thought to have any effect on the numbers of fish hatched in 2003. Walleye live into their 20s, and that class of 2003 now make up about one-third of the total number of walleye in Lake Erie. So in a strange sense, the Lake Erie walleye are an aging population like the people on the shore catching them (but walleye still reproduce into old age, unlike their human counterparts).
“Right now it is at the point where we don’t have a real clear idea about what will happen in the next few years, as the big class from eleven years ago is aging and being caught and dying and not being replaced in the same numbers,” said Mark DuFour, a biologist with the Lake Erie Center at the University of Toledo.
Carey Knight, a fish biologist for the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife, and the researchers tracking the fish with computer chips, says that “Lake Erie is a shared resource, and in order to keep this walleye population sustainable, we have to keep the commercial industry on the north end of the lake, and the sports fishing on the southern part.”
“If we open that door for commercial fishing for walleye, it would be very hard to keep things in balance,” Knight says.
But John Hageman, a retired manager for the Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, a Lake Erie research facility specializing in freshwater biology, said the debate about whether commercial fishing of walleye was practical from a scientific research perspective became very political through the years. “[Stone Laboratory] was supportive of increasing the amount of commercial fishing in small steps,” Hageman says, “but it became a popularity contest in Columbus and that pretty much closed the door on the commercial fishing.”
“The state [of Ohio] justifies its prejudice in favor of the sportsmen with the economic value estimates, and it is hard to argue against that,” says Hageman, who is the vice president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio. “I agree with the concept that we should be able to eat fresh walleye caught in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie instead of frozen walleye from Canada. But there isn’t that much of a cushion [of walleye population] now to have the state make a change like this.”
“And I just wonder how much difference it would make,” the longtime writer for Ohio Outdoor News says. “Restaurants and grocery stores can still sell the Canadian walleye as being Lake Erie fish. With modern shipping there only might be a difference of a few days. I don’t know if the public cares that much. It’s all relative.”
Rick Unger is president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, which represents about 800 charter boat captains. He agrees with the notion that commercial walleye fishing should stay in Canadian waters, because “the walleye you are buying in your grocery store and eating in your restaurant are Lake Erie walleye, and anyone who sees a difference in the walleye caught from one side of the lake or the other is just thinking about an imaginary line in the water.”
“The sports fishing industry in Ohio has always said we will follow the best science and we will follow the best policy for Lake Erie to be as healthy and as productive a resource as it can be,” Unger says. “There is a downside to opening up the door to walleye for the commercial interests, because we have had poaching by them and there are a lot of problems if we open that door.”
And as for sharing the sports fishing quota that is not caught – that roughly 600,000 walleye each year – Unger says there is a different mindset his group has when dealing with their quotas. “Commercial fishing wants to use every bit of their quota every year, up to the maximum,” he says. “We don’t ever want to hit ours. Our numbers depend on the weather and the seasonal changes and the number of fishermen who get licenses, so many factors.”
“So we want to be able to accommodate fishermen if we need to,” he says. “We see our quota as a safe number, a number that if we don’t get this year, we can save for next year, and allow the walleye population to be in healthy numbers so the economic activity of this industry can be viable and healthy for the state.”
And what is healthy for the fishing industry has always been fought over by the two groups. In the mid-1800s, the four states and Ontario began setting up commissions that regulated fishing in Lake Erie, and the bargaining has never been above board and pleasant. The shallower western basin close to Detroit and Cleveland has always fought against gill net fishing because the rich industrialists from those cities wanted to have a lot of fish available for their summer vacations.
In 1894, a Canadian navy ship pointed its canons at sports fishing boats in western Lake Erie, and arrested 50 wealthy American businessmen who were fishing with poles and lines off Pelee Island in Canadian waters without licenses. The incident happened because the government of Canada thought the American sports fishermen were hurting the country’s commercial fishing interests. Newspaper cartoonists lampooned the affair, with the Detroit News showing Canadian sailors pointing canons and guns and fishermen in rowboats under the headline “Battle of Lake Erie (1894).”
Since then, as the fish population in the lake went down from pollution and over-fishing, the Ohio and the U.S. representatives sided with the sports fishing industry over time, while the Canadians went with commercial fisheries. While the mercury and other toxic chemical levels now make the fish caught away from the shore safe to eat, the small Ohio commercial fishing industry says they do not see the state fostering any type of help in possibly restoring some of the balance in Ohio waters.
In fact, Ohio almost outlawed all commercial fishing (including perch) in 2006, as ODNR game wardens had charged numerous commercial fishery operators with over-fishing their quotas and selling their catch illegally. The felony charges included racketeering, theft, money-laundering, and forgery. Some were facing a prison sentence of 15 years. Thirteen pleaded guilty in exchange for small fines and no jail time.
Mike Szuch was charged with illegally selling fish, and the only evidence was that the wholesaler he sold the fish to didn’t document the proper pound correctly. Many still believe that ODNR’s overzealous crackdown on the commercial fishermen was pushed hard by the sport fishing industry, wanting to get rid of the commercial fishing nuisance once and for all. Szuch was offered a plea deal similar to the others, but fought it in court, and was found not guilty of theft and tampering with records in 2009.
What has resulted, however, in the wake of all those charges, is a fishing industry that has no real chance for any growth in Ohio. There are eighteen commercial fishing licenses (owned by 10 businesses), and those licenses can never be sold or transferred and the state has indicated they will not be offering any new licenses any time soon. By contrast, Ontario has about 175 licensed commercial fishing companies that operate in Lake Erie.
The Ohio net fishermen also have to be hooked up to a state-monitored GPS system, which not only makes sure they stay out of Canadian waters, but also track their catch in certain parts of the lake (they have quotas within quotas based on quadrants of the lake). And the punishment for violations include heavy fines and loss of their license for up to ten years. In short, if they don’t keep track of where their boat and nets are, and record their numbers accurately, they will be out of business.
And while the commercial fishing industry in the Ohio waters is very heavily monitored, the six fish daily bag limit of sports fishermen is largely self-policed. Game wardens can and do try to keep sports fishermen from exceeding their limit, but there are only so many of them to police the 800 charter boats out of Lake Erie and 600,000 fishermen in the state on any given weekend. While both sides accuse the other of over-fishing, fishing writer Hageman says “everyone in sports fishing underreports and it is easy to do, and the fines are small, but the commercial fishing companies will be out of business if they cheat the system.”
Port Clinton, the small town on the western basin of Lake Erie, calls itself “The Walleye Capital of the World.” Plenty of charter boats are based there and they take plenty of fishermen out to catch walleye during the summer season. But if you are going to eat walleye at a restaurant in Port Clinton, it is most likely from Canada and was probably frozen during its shipping.
Zack Bruell is a famed chef in Cleveland and operates seven restaurants in the area. He has always felt restaurants should specialize in seafood dishes, “because people don’t shop for seafood like they did many years ago, and they really don’t cook much seafood at home. You have to go out to eat to get a really great seafood dish.”
At his Parallax restaurant in Cleveland’s Tremont’s neighborhood, he serves perch and walleye dishes, usually in the $20 to $25 range. He says walleye has a good texture so it can be grilled as well as sautéed or broiled, and that “Cleveland is definitely a perch and walleye town. We will sell out of perch and walleye dishes whenever we get the fish in.”
“What I’m always looking at is flavor and price point when we are looking at local dishes for our restaurants,” Bruell says. “I remember when walleye was four or five dollars a pound many years ago, sort of a trash fish really, but it is at least double that price now because people really want to order it because they feel it is a local food.”
“The problem we have is that it is seasonal, but it is also seasonal within the season,” he says. “Sometimes the walleye swims deeper and just disappears and no one has it. So I would think that if there is a market for it, and we could get more product in the food chain, and it is a local dish that this region can play upon, then I don’t see why we don’t open up the fishing in Ohio waters.”
“I just think if we can make walleye more consistently available and more affordable it would be good in many ways,” Bruell says.
Catanese Classic Seafood’s Gullo sees opening up the walleye market as an economic plus. “We are seeing people changing their diets, and eating less beef and poultry, and sometimes substituting seafood as a protein, and the state isn’t seeing this trend and see how the regional economy can benefit from that,” he says.
One of the intangible benefits from eating what is close by is that people tend to pay better attention to the local environment and the issues of maintaining that environment if the food they eat comes from those environs. Greenberg points out in his book that we are mostly exporting fish caught in the wild, and importing farm-raised seafood. “American consumers suffer from a deficit of American fish, but someone out there is eating our lunch,” Greenberg writes.
It is very easy to see that contradiction in the local grocery stores. In a recent visit to the Giant Eagle in Westlake, there was no Canadian walleye available and what was labeled “Lake Perch Canada” was selling for $13.99 a pound. Farm-raised tilapia from Thailand was selling for $7.99, and Icelandic cod was selling for $11.99. Prices were similar at the Heinen’s in Rocky River. I found it very odd that it was difficult to find seafood from the largest freshwater system on earth just a few miles from its shoreline.
And that’s what Holly Szuch finds odd as well. She and her husband catch about 250,000 pounds of yellow perch every year, and the wholesale price they get paid this summer is about $2.60 a pound. When you factor in employees and maintenance costs and financing of the business, it isn’t really a great business to be in. Szuch suggests that perhaps the state might open up 100,000 of the 600,000 of the uncaught sports fishing walleye quota, giving each commercial license holder 10,000 to catch. That might add about $40,000 to their bottom line, and might pay for one more employee.
“We know that the future of that lake is the future of our business, the future of our livelihoods,” Holly Szuch says. “We don’t want to mess that up. But we also know that people who know where their food comes from are more engaged in knowing that, they tend to be more proactive about environmental issues. I’m happy that the charter boat people take people out to fish and those people get to experience this most unique water ecosystem on earth.
“But I hate it when they see us as competition,” she says. “We aren’t taking their fish. The fish don’t belong to them. They belong to all of us. It’s what we eat for dinner.”
Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.
Photos Bob Perkoski