Don’t Fear the Fish

Michigan’s abundance of fresh water yields a bounty of choices — for recreation and eating
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Photograph courtesy of Travel Michigan

Simply put, it was a disaster. The 2010 Enbridge oil spill, one of the most expensive onshore spills in American history, sent more than a million gallons of crude gushing into a tributary that flows into the Kalamazoo River. Homes were evacuated, residents fell ill, and its effects reverberated throughout the Great Lakes.

Last summer, as I looked back on the cleanup effort in and around Marshall, I got to thinking about fishing in Michigan. I can remember fishing as a teenager on the lake behind my parents’ Oakland County home from the deck of our tiny Sunfish sailboat. My sister and I would drop lines and reel in small bass and pike, always throwing the little fellas back in the water. Anyone who’s ever lived on or near a lake or river in these parts knows of people who’ve angled the waters of Michigan — from the tiniest creeks to the greatest of the Great Lakes, Superior. And while it’s been decades since I dangled a line in the water, I can still recall the thrill of feeling that tug and reeling in my catch.

Today, as a chef and food writer, most of the fish I come across has been caught for me, purchased in local markets. Occasionally, I get the generous friend who’ll gift me a just-caught Michigan trout, whitefish, or yellow perch for us to share.

Michigan is uniquely situated in the world, with our great and small rivers and lakes. We’re a peninsula (two, really) that often feels like an island, with so much fresh water at every turn.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on earth. Michigan.gov cites 11,000 lakes, streams, and rivers and the longest freshwater shoreline in the United States. Our waters consistently appear on “best of” fishing lists. Last year, Outdoor Life magazine named Traverse City as one of the best fishing towns in America.

Fishing’s a big deal in these parts. So I was surprised recently to learn that commercial fishing in Michigan isn’t what it used to be. Bob Morton, who, with his brother Scott, owns Lily’s Seafood in downtown Royal Oak, explains: “It’s difficult to find Michigan fish — commercial Michigan fishery is almost non-existent.”

One reason for that is over-fishing. When Detroit was first settled, sturgeon were so plentiful in Lake St. Clair, they were pulled from the water and stacked like cordwood to be used for fertilizer. They still exist in the lakes but aren’t nearly as plentiful. Fewer fish mean that fisheries sell much of their catches near where they’re harvested, transporting only a small percentage to other locales.

Morton also blames restrictive commercial licensing. “The majority of Great Lakes whitefish and perch that we buy are produced and processed in Canada,” he says. He remembers a perch fishery near his parents’ cottage on Drummond Island. Some of the boats are still there, but the commercial fishing companies are long gone. “There are fewer and fewer all the time,” he says.

So while the fish may swim in Michigan waters, licensing laws allow only a few Michigan companies to actually fish commercially within state boundaries.

Then there are invasive species. According to the EPA, an invasive species is a plant or animal “non-native” or “alien” to an ecosystem whose introduction is likely to cause economic, human health, or environmental damage. Once they’re established, it’s hard to control their spread.

“Invasive species put [commercial fishing] over the edge,” says Morton. “Zebra mussels and goby compete with smaller fish, which provide food for larger fish. Sports fishing is mostly all that’s left.”

People don’t have to go far to fish in this state. Mike Rusher, of Walled Lake, is a sport fisherman. That means he’s involved in competitions and fishing for pleasure more than he fishes for food. And he’s on the water year-round. “Michigan has some of the best fishing around,” he says. “World-class. Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and northern Michigan lakes are unbelievable.”

Rusher often fishes alone, but he also belongs to an organized fishing club. He estimates there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of fishing clubs in Michigan. As a member of Bass ’n’ Stars of Oakland County, he releases his catch, per competition rules.

“I’ll keep walleye in the spring and fall and perch in the winter,” Rusher says. While he prefers not to raise a shanty on the ice, he claims that the best Michigan fish to eat are ones caught in the icy winter waters.

Great fishing spots are often guarded like state secrets. And some anglers don’t even like to divulge their favorites.

“If my brother-in-law sees one of his favorite fishing lakes on a television show or in a magazine, he says, ‘They ruined it,’ ” says Rusher. When a lake gets that kind of publicity, he says, they often get too crowded and the fishing pressure (too many people/not enough fish) becomes too much.

If you’re not an avid angler, there are hundreds of charter companies that can take you fishing on Michigan’s myriad rivers and lakes. In the Detroit area alone, there are several charter companies that specialize in river and lake fishing expeditions (a good place to start is micharterboats.com).

Chemical reaction

Food safety concerns always surface when there’s talk of fish contaminants. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin, and mercury top nearly every list of fish toxins. These are known to be “persistent” and “bioaccumulative” chemicals. Through the food chain, fish ingest the chemicals, store them in fat or muscle, and the toxins never break down. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, these chemicals can build up in fish over the years. And when we eat fish, the chemicals can build up in our bodies, too. The MDCH also says that after years of these chemicals building up in our bodies, some people can develop health issues, such as cancer or diabetes, and that it can also affect the growth and brain development of children.

To help raise awareness, the department publishes an annual safe fish guide, outlining which fish are most affected and recommending eating guidelines for the general public.

While this might sound dire, most fish wholesalers, retailers, fishermen, and chefs agree that, in small quantities, there’s little to worry about. “Fish is no worse than anything else for you,” says Howard Halpern, owner of Original Redford Fish Market. “Look at how poultry and beef [are] raised. It’s not like anyone’s eating [Great Lakes] fish seven days a week.”

So how good is Michigan fish? On the plate, I can tell you it’s mighty good. And by most accounts, eating fish is still better for you than it is bad.

For more information, visit michigan.gov/eatsafefish.

photographs courtesy of rick lahmann; travel michigan.

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