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A price war over a popular Great Lakes fish

Nov 1, 2016

It’s the busy time of year for commercial fishing on the Great Lakes. But the price of whitefish is about half what it was three years ago, because of problems with international trade.

Interlochen Public Radio's Peter Payette has been covering this story. He says that this problem started with Russia.

“Two years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea, western countries responded by imposing sanctions on Russia. And Russia responded to that with its own sanctions, among which were bans on food imports from western countries. Canada used to send a lot of fish over to Russia, a lot of whitefish. And all of a sudden that was not possible anymore,” he says.

New York is a big market for whitefish. So when Canada could no longer sell as much overseas, whitefish caught in Canada started flooding the New York markets at a cheaper price than American fish.

Dustin VanOrman runs a family fishing business at Big Stone Bay Fishery in Mackinaw City. He says this has caused a little bit of a price war.

“Which makes it hard to put a lot of fish in your freezer and bank on getting good money right now. I would think that as that sanction, if it’s lifted, we would see the fish start to move back towards Russia and Ukraine, and that would just start to take some of the pressure off right here, which then again would bring prices back up,” says VanOrman.

VanOrman says the price of whitefish is about half what it was three years ago, but he says those were some of the highest prices ever paid for whitefish.

Seasonal supply and demand

The problem with fishing for Great Lakes whitefish is that demand is highest in the summer, when restaurants are busy and families want to grill fish on the barbeque. But Payette says that’s also the hardest time for fishermen.

“That’s when it’s the hardest to catch whitefish. They’re out deeper, they’re hard to get at. In the fall, they’re easier to get because they come into shallower water, but there’s not as much demand around here,” he says.

But he says in New York, smokehouses and Jewish delis continue to buy whitefish from Great Lakes fishermen into the fall, especially in time for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in early October.

Payette says in our region, large whitefish processors and handlers are trying to reach local markets.

“They’re making sure they’re doing everything they can to sell fish in Michigan before trying to sell it on wholesale markets and shipping it by the truckload out to New York,” he says.

You can listen to the interview with Peter Payette above.