At Empire Fish in Milwaukee, you can buy a frozen octopus the size of your head — from South Africa. Red king crab legs the length of your arm — from the Bering Sea. Or as many pounds of tilapia as you can fathom — farmed in China.
But on this particular weekday in the fillet room at the market, four men are slicing along the spines of lake whitefish and walleye, native species from the Great Lakes region. These fish were caught wild in Canadian waters.
Photo by Theresa Soley
One man brings his slender blade to the fish’s head and removes it, chucking the discard into a grey garbage bin beside him. He presses his knife through flesh until it hits hard abdominal vertebra. Next the man follows the fish’s backbone with his blade past pectoral fin, then dorsal fin until meeting caudal fin: its tail.
The man tosses a one-pound chunk of meat into a silver tray with one hand, and flips what’s left of the whitefish with the other. As instinctually as a plumber tightens a washer, he carves out the fillet. After removing the meat, the only remains are spinal column to tail. The skeleton gets tossed into the garbage bin, piled high with heads, tails and bones.
Next fish. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
While lake whitefish and walleye are from the Great Lakes, local fish are a minority at the market. Empire Fish is only 10 miles from Lake Michigan, one of the world’s grandest freshwater bodies, yet its stock is mostly exotic. The United States imports 80 percent of its seafood from other countries — like octopus from South Africa.
Not all of the fish at the market was caught wild, either, as aquaculture has become a widespread phenomenon. In 2012, the United States was ranked third in overall fish farming production by country worldwide, after China and Indonesia, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has determined that Asian countries including Thailand, India, and China use unsustainable fishing and farming practices. That’s why a frozen bag of imported tilapia fillets at Empire Fish costs proportionately less than locally sourced fish.
In the Great Lakes region, fishermen are feeling the brunt of global trade in seafood. Before the 1960s, the Great Lakes sustained abundant commercial fisheries and exported fillets east to west. But now the region imports instead.
Due to overfishing, invasive species, and pollution, commercial industries in the region have collapsed and few wild Great Lakes fisheries remain. Even ocean fish stocks are in decline, and many scientists worry that overfishing could cause the ocean to run near empty. World Wildlife Fund reported in 2015 that marine fish populations have declined by 50 percent since 1970.
To reduce stress on wild seafood populations, across the country laws are being instated to relax aquaculture regulations. A federal law came into effect on February 12 that allows offshore fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico. Another research venture hopes to erect fish pens off the coast of San Diego. Inland, the Wisconsin legislature proposed a bill to regulate aquaculture like agriculture.
Kevin Anschutz has been commercial fishing in Lake Michigan for the last 40 of his 50-year life.
“We’ve been fishing since way before we were old enough to drive,” he says. Anschutz learned the lifestyle from his father and now fishes with his older brother. The two operate Anschutz Fisheries in Baileys Harbor, Wis.
On this spring afternoon the lake sparkles, reflecting sunshine. Anschutz steers his boat away from shore and into the blue water. The color of his eyes, baseball cap, t-shirt and denim all match the lake. He lights a cigarette.
Anschutz has witnessed both fish populations and commercial fisheries in the lake decline. He says 40 years ago there were nearly 150 fishermen, but today in Wisconsin he estimates there are 30 left.
Historically, a long list of fish were caught and consumed from the Great Lakes including sturgeon, herring and trout. But now every commercial boat in Baileys Harbor is competing for the same species: lake whitefish. It’s the only abundant species left in the lake that’s also economically valuable.
Today, Anschutz is both the boat’s captain and deckhand. He migrates from steering the wooden wheel at the stern to preparing fishing gear at the bow. All activity takes place below deck, sealed away from the elements. Anschutz pulls his nets in through a large window. A wood-burning stove and chimney at the boat’s center can produce heat.
During the winter the lake sometimes freezes, but Anschutz sets and pulls his fishing nets anyway. “If I can get out and the ice isn’t too bad, I’ll break out from the dock with the boat and go and fish,” Anschutz says.
His hands show his hard work. Both are grey, scabbed.
“I went out and lifted [the nets] yesterday, and I was unable to reset because there was nets through the ice, and if I had reset ’em, the nets would wanna, ya know, hang on the ice flows and stuff. So I wasn’t able to set that, but I had several hundred pounds.”
When Anschutz began fishing in the ’70s there was another fish in the lake people liked to eat, too. “We used to be equal parts chub fishing operation and whitefish, but the chubs, they kinda disappeared when the mussels showed up,” he says. “First the zebra mussel and then the quagga.”
The two mussel species are invasive and don’t belong in Lake Michigan. They are originally from Europe’s Black Sea, but crossed the Atlantic Ocean in ship ballasts and have since settled in the Great Lakes.
Today, mussels carpet the lake bottom. Anschutz opens his palm to reveal a number of mussels he removed from his fishing gear. Each one is just larger than a Mike and Ike candy. Beneath his peeling, red captain’s chair lie a dozen dried out shells. They’re everywhere.
“Somehow those zebra mussels filter the water so clean that it affected the food chain,” Anschutz says.
Invasive mussels have transformed the largest freshwater bodies on planet Earth into emptier ecosystems. “One thing affects another, and all of a sudden the chubs started declining. I haven’t set chubs for a long time, many years, but it was a mainstay for us.”
Anschutz says that when he started fishing, chubs made up 80 percent of Lake Michigan’s biomass. Their decline began in the ’90s, and now they’re uncommon.
According to the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project, in the 1800s the Great Lakes basin commercially harvested 100 million pounds of wild fish each year. Now the region harvests only a small fraction of that amount, just 18.7 million pounds in 2012.
The collapse of Great Lakes fisheries foretells the future of our oceans. Data suggests that 90 percent of wild marine fish stocks are now fully exploited or overexploited.
When chubs vanished from Lake Michigan, the Anschutz family changed their fishing ways. They sold their large boat, needed to make long trips to deep water where the chubs lived, and replaced it with The Gen, a smaller vessel.
Anschutz recently read that Wisconsin fish farmers are raising whitefish in farms and selling them in the market. This got him thinking about farming fish on his family’s land. “I am for fish farming, but not when it comes to putting pens in any of the Great Lakes,” he says.
Photo by Theresa Soley
After witnessing havoc wreaked by the invasive mussels in Lake Michigan, Anschutz wants to make sure more exotic species, disease and pollution stay out of his cherished fishing grounds. But farming on private land, he says, will probably become a lucrative business. “You can stick to your old ways, but eventually technology, no matter what industry you’re in, you’re going to have to jump on the bandwagon, ya know. Hence the reason I’d been studying up on aquaculture myself.”
He’s considering carving small divots out of his acreage, filling them with water and stocking the ponds with native yellow perch, another rare fish species that was once prevalent in Lake Michigan.
While Anschutz doesn’t think fish farming will put commercial fishermen out of business in Wisconsin, he recognizes that a future in the wild fish business could be bleak. “I can foresee in my lifetime fish farming and aquaculture overcoming production of fish and seafood compared to commercial fishing,” he says. “I think it’s already close, I mean worldwide.”
Consumption of farmed fish exceeded wild fish for the first time in history in 2015. And the World Bank predicts that by 2030, aquaculture will provide two-thirds of fish consumed by humans.
Anschutz says even if he starts farming them, he will continue commercial fishing.
Today the lake is flat and seagulls land silently atop the calm sheet of blue. A few weeks ago the water was congested with ice.
“It can be rather brutal,” he says of fishing in winter. “You wake up and it’s 40 below, and three hours later you’re 5 miles out and wind’s blown in the door; your hands are wet, and you’re freezing. It would be much easier just to step outside and scoop fish out of a pond.”
But he says something would be missing if he completely transitions from fishing to farming. “I guess that’s what keeps me alive, taking chances and stuff. Out on the water, you never know what’s going to happen out there.” Anschutz hopes the commercial fishing industry doesn’t decline from 30 commercial boats to the single digits in Wisconsin.
For Anschutz, while frozen fingers and ice can be burdensome, it’s worth something. “It makes me feel alive.”
Wisconsin is largely a rural, agricultural state. The town of Palmyra is both fields and state forest, modern homes and peeling cottages, sagging sawmills and churches. Tucked among the cornhusks is Rushing Waters Fisheries, an 80-acre trout farm.
Rushing Waters raises rainbow trout. Fifty-six ponds on the property circulate water where trout are reared from egg to harvest size. The farm sells its fillets throughout the Great Lakes region and plans to expand. Right now, the demand for homegrown trout is beyond what can be produced on the property.
Peter Fritsch, president of Rushing Waters, operates his business like any Wisconsin farm. He says the local food movement, in which people want to see where their food comes from, caused an upward swing in business. Consumers are finally asking, “Why would I want to buy fish imported from China when I could buy fish raised in my own state?”
His fish ponds are clean and don’t produce contaminated fillets, he says. The oxygenated water running through his pools, naturally abundant aquatic plants and insects filter the system.
“Algae is our friend,” Fritsch says.
As fish grow in size, they are rotated through ponds based on weight. Trout work their way from indoor hatchery tanks to large outdoor pools ready for harvest. Ninety percent of the trout swimming in the ponds are female. Females provide larger fillets than males do, so they are preferred for aquaculture.
The greatest number of trout fatalities comes from sensitive egg and hatchling stages. Fritsch says he has a survival rate of 50 percent, compared to about 5 percent survival in wild trout populations.
In one pond, hundreds of rainbow trout circle in a tight school. When a handful of fishmeal is tossed in, dorsal fins pierce the surface in a collision of silver.
At his farm, Fritsch says it takes 1.3 pounds of food to make one pound of fish. Cattle need to eat 6.8 pounds and chickens need 1.7 pounds to produce one pound of meat. Trout aren’t vegetarians, so their diet consists of oceanic species ground and baked into pellets. Critics of aquaculture say removing fish from the ocean in order to feed fish in farms is inefficient and threatens wild stocks.
Paul Brown, professor of aquaculture at Purdue University, says there has been extensive research into the development of protein alternatives, including soy, for aquaculture feed. He says it would be possible to feed nearly all farmed fish in the United States using these protein options, but many farmers resist. Plant-based food prices are reliable, and Brown says the aquaculture industry will eventually have to transition its feed due to depleted marine fish stocks.
The Gen grumbles as she moves atop Lake Michigan’s surface. After traveling 4 miles from shore, Kevin Anschutz arrives at the nets he dropped yesterday. “There’s the buoy right on the bow there,” he says. The buoy marks the nets, his catch.
Turn off captain mode, turn on deckhand.
Anschutz, in rubber orange overalls, stretches a hook toward the buoy and brings it on board. He wraps the thin net around a pulley system, and a motor winds it in from the water. The first fish he encounters is a brown trout, a protected species. He detaches the gills from the net and tosses the large body back to water.
Next come the lake whitefish, silver and slightly smaller. After detaching each individual fish from the net, he brings a hammer to the head.
As the net is pulled in from the lake, the bin fills with silver bodies. Most are lifeless. Then suddenly gills expand, a tail flinches or a head thrusts toward the sky.
Anschutz covers the bin of whitefish with ice. After returning to shore, they will be sent to markets and local restaurants.
Milwaukee’s Empire Fish market receives lake whitefish in cardboard boxes. But increasingly these days, local seafood on the shelves is coming from fish farms.
Some fish arrive already filleted, while others are sent in whole.
One of the filleting crew, Simon Castello grabs a Great Lakes region walleye. The fish is 2 feet long, bigger than whitefish, with a yellow stripe running down its body. It has a white tender belly, a pointed snout and opalescent eyes.
The eye is an indicator of the fish’s freshness, says Joselito Diaz, fillet room manager. A bulging eye suggests it was caught just a few days ago. When fish are older, their eyes sink into their heads, Diaz says.
Castello reaches for the descaling tool hanging above him and brings it to fish skin. He presses the blade from tail to head. Iridescent scales float in the air, landing to spot the floor in a natural shine.
Next Diaz slits the fish along its stomach. He pulls out two long sacks of walleye roe. “How many eggs do you think is in there?” he asks. “A million,” Castello replies.
Diaz thinks Americans are wasteful. Here, all of the fish guts, roe, and heart are thrown into the garbage. “In China, they eat everything,” he says.