Changing ecosystems and the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing commercial fishing companies to change where they fish and how they sell their products.
Sharon Moen is an outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. She told Wisconsin Public Radios “The Morning Show“that invasive species such as quagga mussels and zebra mussels in Lake Michigan have reduced the amount of food for fish species such as yellow perch and whitefish.
“So, the changes in the food network that have happened in Lake Michigan have really disrupted the commercial fishing industry,” Moen said.
She said commercial fishing for whitefish and especially perch has declined in areas outside Green Bay. Moen said tributaries to Green Bay such as the Fox River contribute to robust whitefish stocks.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has taken note that while the total whitefish stock in Lake Michigan has been declining, the stock in Green Bay is more stable. The board notes that some commercial fishermen would like to harvest more in the area, but anglers have expressed concern over conflicts with commercial fishermen.
The yellow perch stock, which has traditionally been a favorite species for Friday night fish fries, has declined even more than the whitefish in Lake Michigan.
“The perforation situation is somewhat gloomy,” Moen said. “It’s been in decline and the catch is far down. There’s still some commercial fishing going on after that, but I think that’s where the future of Wisconsin aquaculture may be.”
Aquaculture, or fish farming, is a relatively small but growing industry in Wisconsin. Moen said fish farms in Minnesota are already looking at breeding perch.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also created lasting change for Wisconsin’s commercial fishing industry.
“When all the restaurants closed down, which is a major buyer of some of these products, the fishermen went for curb delivery,” Moen said. “And then they made fish sandwiches and fish cakes and smoked fish and made value-added products.”
Moen said wholesale prices for fish have been “tragically low” and that commercial fishermen are able to make much more money selling products locally. She said business owners have told her they plan to continue selling fish products locally with some open additional retail locations along the south shore of Lake Superior in places like Chequamegon Bay.