Michigan Sea Grant helps Great Lakes whitefish make a comeback
Fishing for Great Lakes whitefish was one of the earliest business enterprises in Michigan. But despite tasting good and being nutritious, Great Lakes whitefish began showing up less often on restaurant menus and in shoppers’ grocery carts. As a result, communities with fishing and fish processing industries—especially tribal communities and others in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—were seeing profits decline.
Michigan Sea Grant, with its long-standing contacts in coastal communities around the state (see "Gray's Matters blog: Michigan Sea Grant Partnership), learned about the problem and launched a marketing program in collaboration with state and tribal commercial fisheries to help solve it. “We didn’t want to lose this component of state culture and its economic and tourism potential,” says Chuck Pistis, Michigan Sea Grant Extension state program coordinator.
With a Fisheries Enhancement grant from the National Sea Grant Office, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pistis, Ron Kinnunen, Sea Grant Extension educator in Marquette, Mich., and the fishing communities began a program to enhance awareness of and create value-added marketing opportunities for whitefish in the food industry. One goal was to help the fishing businesses establish stringent guidelines for the industry to assure a high-quality product and a speedy trip from lakes to market—all part of helping the fishing industry become sustainable and profitable by creating greater value for Great Lakes whitefish.
An early step linked the tribal and other fishing industry leaders with the MSU Product Center, where supply chain specialist Matt Birbeck helped them form a marketing cooperative called Legends of the Lakes. Working with a market research firm, the cooperative analyzed their industry and its potential market. “They capitalized on the local angle,” Pistis recalls. Processing the fish close to home—where it’s caught and where it’s processed is noted on the package—helps assure freshness.
In addition, Pistis and Kinnunen worked with MSU food scientist Janice Harte to coordinate taste tests comparing fresh to quick-frozen Great Lakes whitefish to whitefish from inland Canadian lakes. “The Great Lakes fish came out ahead in all those sensory analyses, whether they were fresh or frozen,” Pistis says.
“We talked to chefs and asked them for their favorite lake whitefish recipes,” adds Carol Swinehart, Sea Grant communications specialist. In addition to being featured in restaurants, including Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, the recipes appear on a Great Lakes Whitefish Web site. Swinehart also interviewed local fishing families and included their profiles on the Web site. The one-pound packages of Legends of the Lake whitefish sold in local grocery stores also feature a recipe from the fishing family who caught it. “That personal touch along with a recipe on a meal-size package made the product very appealing to consumers,” she says.
Now the culinary arts program at Northern Michigan University is incorporating whitefish preparation into its curriculum and is helping produce a new cookbook. Restaurants throughout the Midwest use Great Lakes whitefish for everything from fish fries to high-end cuisine. The marketing effort was successful, Pistis concludes.
Additional Sea Grant research is under way to determine if these fishing businesses are attractive to the younger generation. Other MSU research explores the effect of invasive species like sea lamprey on the fish and develops models for assessing the supply of this reclusive cousin of salmon and trout.
The Michigan Sea Grant program was probably the first formal partnership between MSU and the University of Michigan (UM). Established in 1977, the partnership has endured for 33 years. It's almost certainly the longest continuous formal relationship between our two universities. In fact, more recent programs, like the University Research Corridor, have used Sea Grant as a model. More...