Istill savor the first time I tasted really fresh Lake Erie walleye. I was having dinner on the Canadian Lake Erie island of Pelee and it was all-you-can-eat walleye night. I’m not generally an all-you-can-eat kind of gal, and when I’d tried walleye before, I didn’t really get what the culinary fuss was about. But then the waitress told me the walleye were fresh—really fresh.
“They just came off the boat this morning,” she said, beaming. I’m a sucker for fresh, locally sourced food. So I said yes. When the fish came, lightly breaded, I bit into a piece—and
went straight to heaven. The taste was succulent, sweet and deeply rich at the same time, abundant with essential lake flavors. I ate two large fillets. When the waitress came by with more, I couldn’t resist helping myself again—it was that good.
But when I got back to Ohio and tried to replicate my fresh walleye experience, I found it wasn’t that simple. My grocery had walleye, but it was frozen. My nearest local fish market had “fresh” walleye that had been previously frozen. Both had been caught and processed in Canada.
And therein lies the problem. We have this enormous, fecund lake at our doorstep, teaming with edible fish. The warmest, shallowest and southernmost of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie’s fishery is more productive than all of the other lakes combined. But most of the commercial fishing takes place on the other side of the lake. The Canadian side.
Lake Erie is widely known as the walleye capital of the world. So why don’t Ohio commercial fishermen take advantage of this bounty?
“They used to,” says Jeff Tyson, head of the Lake Erie fisheries management program for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“Back in the late 1950s, the walleye population became severely depressed due to degraded water quality,” he says. “Prior to that, there were extensive commercial fisheries throughout the lake—not just Ohio and Ontario, but New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania—that probably contributed to the decline of walleye.”
In other words, pollution and overfishing hurt the industry. In 1970, authorities instituted a lake-wide moratorium on walleye fishing due to mercury contamination from coal-fired power plants. By the time that ban was lifted three years later, the management of Lake Erie fisheries had changed.
“Canadians started commercial operations again, but there still weren’t a lot of walleye,” says Tyson. “By 1976, the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission initiated interagency management of the walleye resources, to try to rebuild them.”
That marked the start of regulating what was a previously unregulated industry. Today, fisheries managers take what’s called an ecosystem approach to sustaining Lake Erie’s naturally reproducing fish populations. Each year, representatives from the four Lake Erie states and one province meet and, based on predictions of available fish stocks, decide how much walleye, yellow perch and other edible fish can safely be caught. Then each state, along with the province of Ontario, decides how to allocate its total allowable annual catches.
In Ohio, 100% of annual walleye catch goes to recreational fishing. The permanent ban was a response to a shrinking commercial fishing industry and a growing interest in sport fishing, valued today as a nearly billion-dollar-a-year industry. By comparison, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates the annual value of Ohio’s commercial fishing to be just over $4 million. As an economic decision, it’s a no brainer. And it’s not likely to change.
Kenneth King of King Fishery in Lorain says he doesn’t mind not being able to fish commercially for Lake Erie walleye.
“There’s plenty of other fish out there we’re allowed to catch,” says King, who’s been fishing on Lake Erie for over 40 years. “We catch yellow perch, whitefish, white perch. Most of it goes to wholesale, but we do sell some fish locally.”
According to Tyson, King is one of about 12 remaining Ohio commercial fishermen. He and his three sons operate four boats and fish from May through October. King acknowledges that demand for walleye—retailing between $8 and $14 per pound—would net him a healthy profit. But even if he were allowed to catch them, there’s another problem.
“Walleye [numbers] are down, way down,” says King. “They’ve lowered the catch limits for sport fishermen again this year, because there just aren’t enough fish.”
Even Ontario’s Lake Erie fishery—which allocates its entire quota to commercial fishing—is hurting. Fisheries manager Tyson says there’s no question that hatches of young walleye have been shrinking since 2003. That was a bumper year, but recent ecological changes in Lake Erie have had a negative impact on fisheries. Most concerning to Tyson is the return of toxic algae blooms, the worst one just two years ago.
“Walleye are not well-suited to algae,” says Tyson. “We think that algae may have contributed to their decline back in the ’50s and ’60s as well. The biggest concern is that we don’t know where things are headed.”
Hatches of walleye and their cousins, yellow perch, were below average last year. Tyson says that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a lot of fish in Lake Erie. But it does mean that, in order to sustain healthy fish populations, fishermen on both sides of the border will catch fewer of Lake Erie’s most sought-after fish this year.
“Longer term, I don’t see a lack of opportunities for consumption of Lake Erie fish,” says Tyson. “But the distribution of fish in the lake may change, and the landed species may change.”
That could mean that, over time, people who crave fresh Lake Erie fish may have to try new species they haven’t eaten before, like whitefish, freshwater drum, and carp.
In the meantime, if it’s walleye you want, you’ll have to buy it—mostly frozen—from Canada. Or go hire a charter boat captain to take you out and catch the fresh variety for yourself.