How a New Sustainable-Practices Initiative is Transforming Michigan’s Fishing Industry

The new 100% Whitefish campaign promises big gains for the fishing industry, as well as consumers, in the Great Lakes region.
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Photograph by Brandon Schroeder

One chilly morning last September, chef Doug Hewitt of Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails welcomed guests to the restaurant for appetizers of fish — belly, eggs, and liver — adding harmony to a silky golden curry, warm fish patties, and more. A bit odd (but tasty) for an early breakfast, yet decidedly perfect for the launch of “100% Whitefish,” an exciting new initiative that is sweeping the Great Lakes region.

For local chefs like Hewitt, sustainable sourcing and “head-to-tail” butchery is nothing new. Better product utilization creates less waste and has a positive impact on every restaurant’s bottom line. But this “trash to cash” philosophy, as Hewitt affectionately calls it, has the potential to do so much more. In Michigan, where whitefish accounts for 91 percent of all commercial fishing revenue, it could also mean more jobs.

The 100% Whitefish campaign, announced last fall, is led by the Chicago-based organization Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers to promote more sustainable uses of Great Lakes whitefish.

Prior to the initiative, only fillets, which account for 40 percent of all whitefish, were considered commercially viable, leaving the rest for pulverized feed — or worse yet, landfills. But researchers have found new uses for fish skin and collagen. These new products could lead to new manufacturing opportunities across the region, taking Michigan’s $4 million fishing economy to new heights.

“The 100% Whitefish initiative can help bring new products, jobs, and revenue opportunities to our local communities,” says Dan Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “It also represents a more sustainable use of one of Michigan’s iconic natural resources — lake whitefish — while growing our blue economy in a way that can maximize the commercial return while respecting the management, health, and recreational needs of the fishery.”

Many of these new products were on display at Chartreuse, where Eichinger and other partnering members shared their enthusiasm for the project. Among them were cod liver oil, dehydrated cod-skin rolls for dogs, marine collagen powders, and even cod-skin wallets, all perfectly packaged and ready for retail.

But perhaps most impressive was the jump in value. In Iceland, for example, where this program originated, researchers managed to boost utilization to over 90 percent. As a result, the value of each Icelandic cod rose from $12 to $3,500.

“Iceland has proven the ‘100% Fish’ concept, and we are now creating similar successes around the world,” says Thor Sigfusson, founder and chair of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, another partner organization in attendance at the announcement. “Initial testing on lake whitefish has shown many different high-value products that could be made from materials that are today either thrown away or processed for very low value. Great Lakes whitefish can be our next success story.”

In fact, according to David Naftzger, director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, this is only the beginning. With so many other species of fish in the Great Lakes, this initiative could easily expand into a more all-encompassing “100% Fish” concept.

“100% Fish can help create more value and benefits from lake trout, walleye, yellow perch, and other species in our region,” says Naftzger, who was also present. “This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we look forward to the work to come.”

For many Detroit diners, whitefish is already an enjoyable part of living in our region, and supporting local fisheries is a welcome bonus. This is especially true at popular seafood restaurants like Joe Muer, where whitefish is a bestseller.

“Whitefish has been a staple on Joe Muer’s menu for decades,” says chef James Oppat, spokesperson for the Joe Vicari Restaurant Group, which operates Joe Muer’s metro Detroit locations. But whitefish for Muer is not only wild caught; it is also sourced directly from Indigenous fishermen, who honor head-to-tail hunting techniques as tribal tradition.

“It ensures sustainability, eliminates all byproduct catch, and lowers emissions and the carbon footprint commonly found with other commercial fishing,” Oppat says.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the role of tribal communities also holds special significance for the proprietors of 100% Whitefish. As a result, the initiative has partnered with the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and other Great Lakes tribal leaders to protect these traditions — and our shared resources — for a more sustainable future.

Only several months in, the true impact of the 100% Whitefish mission remains to be seen. But its influence on human health and the environment alike could make it a model for the U.S. food system as a whole. Plus, growing Michigan’s fishing industry — and the state’s small-business community — makes the initiative that much sweeter.

To learn more about the “100% Whitefish” initiative, visit gsgp.org.


This story is part of the March 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition