Restaurants and markets running low on a popular Great Lakes fish

Apr 17, 2014

Monahan’s Seafood Market in Ann Arbor carries soft-shell crabs from Maryland, Alaskan salmon, and Florida red snapper.

But at the moment, they’re fresh out of Great Lakes whitefish.

Bernie Fritzsch manages the fish market.

Bernie Fritzsch gets ready for the lunch rush at Monahan's Seafood Market.
Bernie Fritzsch gets ready for the lunch rush at Monahan's Seafood Market.
Credit Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

“We’re hoping to see it today, but we haven’t seen it for the last week,” he says.

He says for the first time in a long time, they had trouble filling their whitefish orders for Passover. That’s because there’s a shortage of Great Lakes whitefish.

Of course, with low supply and strong demand come higher prices.

“It’s been higher than I’ve seen it in my 20-some years here. It’s probably 30%-40% higher,” says Fritzsch.

He says whitefish is running $20 a pound or more.

Got whitefish?

To find out why whitefish are in short supply, I called up Mark Ebener. He’s the fishery biologist with the Chippewa-Ottawa Resource Authority.

He says whitefish is popular in a lot of delis on the East Coast.

“A large amount of fish that come out of the Great Lakes basin go to New York, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto. But some of our fish go to California. In the summertime, most of the fish are used for filets and stay here.”

He says there are a couple of things causing the whitefish shortage.

“Number one would be significant declines in overall abundance of whitefish in Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are really the largest sources of whitefish for restaurants and grocery stores in the Great Lakes basin. Second, beyond that, is the severity of this particular winter has been that the large fishery that’s developed in the southern Ontario waters of Lake Huron never really had a chance to fish much this year because of all the ice," he says.

Ebener says the lack of that fishery this year has meant a reduction of more than a half million pounds of fish that normally would be on the markets. He points out that the catch peaked in 2004 in the Great Lakes basin and it’s been declining precipitously ever since.

Bottom line... you'll be paying more for whitefish for a while

“Right now, at least in Lake Huron, there’s no overt signs anywhere that we’re seeing any significant increases in whitefish reproduction. At least in the main basin of Lake Huron, where the big decline in abundance has taken place. The decline in Georgian Bay and the north channel doesn’t look as bad as it does in the main basin. In Lake Michigan, we’ve seen a decline in reproduction but nowhere near the level we’ve seen in Lake Huron."

He says the silver lining here is what he calls the "astronomical" prices fishermen are getting for the whitefish they catch.

“Prices that I’ve never seen in my 35-year career, and I think it would be safe to say that most of the commercial fishermen have never seen the prices that they’re getting paid for their fish right now. We’re talking anywhere between $3 and $3.50 a pound wholesale for whitefish which is basically unheard of. For a large number of years, guys were happy with a dollar a pound.”