On a rainy Monday morning, fisherwoman Holly Szuch steers her boat to the loading dock at Catanese Classic Seafoods in the Flats. She and her husband unload crates of yellow perch that are so fresh, they're actually still flopping around in the beds of ice.
Szuch, who lives in Toledo, married into a fishing family that's been casting nets into Lake Erie's waters since 1928. As she puts it, "For a woman, you either marry into it or you're born into it — it's not like Barbie ever came out with a fishing doll." During peak season, she and her husband often work 16-hour days, rising at 1:30 a.m. to head out onto the water.
For the past few years, the fishing in Lake Erie has been pretty good, as walleye and perch populations –have remained steady, dipping only slightly. Commercial fisheries in Canada are the only ones that catch walleye, because the Ohio Department of Natural Resources believes that commercial fishing could harm this fragile population. But yellow perch are fair game within annual limits. Once Szuch reaches the quota she's allowed to pull out of the lake, she heads to the shore to catch rough fish like white bass, porgie and sheepshead, which are often sold outside of Northeast Ohio.
"I'd rather be out on the lake than sitting in an office behind a desk," says Szuch, who says she uses sustainable methods to fish and spends winters catching up on sleep, repairing nets and getting ready for spring. "Every morning, I get to see a great sunrise."
Yet while the day's catch of 800 pounds of yellow perch is pretty decent, troubled waters may lie ahead for Szuch and other fishermen. The harmful algae blooms that threatened Toledo's water supply, caused by excess levels of phosphorus delivered by the runoff from rivers and streams, could impact fish health. Algae blooms haven't yet come to Cleveland this year, but observers say that they could be heading this way someday. Another difficulty facing Lake Erie is the introduction of non-native species. And the challenges facing the lake are accelerating due to global climate change.
"The Lake Erie walleye and yellow perch population are relatively healthy, but they are challenged by some issues, water quality being one of them," says Jeff Fisher, Lake Erie program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Others put it more forcefully. "Lake Erie is in trouble, and getting worse by the year," Michael Wines wrote in an Aug. 4 story in the New York Times. "Flooded by tides of phosphorus washed from fertilized farms, cattle feedlots and leaky septic systems, [it] is increasingly being choked each summer by thick mats of algae, much of it poisonous ... while there is talk of action — and particularly in Ohio, real action — there also is widespread agreement that efforts to address the problem have fallen woefully short."
Toledo's water crisis garnered international attention, with images of water glasses filled with green sludge going viral on the Internet. Yet there's a smaller, less-talked-about impact coming down the pipe. Lake Erie's declining health could stymie the popularity and availability of local fish, harming a lake-to-table trend that's just starting to take off.
From hook to cook
Anyone who grew up in Northeast Ohio and was alive during the 1970s has memories of Lake Erie as a national symbol of water pollution. We all know the attention our lake has gotten over the years, for its degradation as well as its slow, uphill recovery.
"We have generational memories of a very polluted lake," says Jessica Ferrato, conservation program coordinator for the Clean Water Campaign of the Ohio Sierra Club. "It wasn't that long ago that lead and mercury were flowing into the lake. In the last 40 years, we've done a lot to curtail that, but people are still rightfully skeptical."
So it's not surprising that many diners looked down their noses at lake fish, believing they weren't safe to eat and choosing, say, the salmon instead. Yet as Lake Erie's health has improved, attitudes have changed. The growing popularity of lake fish is driven in part by chefs like Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern and Doug Katz of Fire, who tout the benefits of eating local foods. Not only are lake fish delicious and good for you, the logic goes, but your dollars go to support local businesses and reduce your environmental impact.
Sawyer and Katz recently teamed up with Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, which helps people make healthy, sustainable choices about seafood, to host a "trash fish" dinner. The menu introduced diners to less common lake fish like mullet and buffalo fish.
"I treat the lake the way we treated farms 10 to 15 years ago," says Sawyer. "By talking about it, by using our purchasing power as a restaurant, we can eventually get to a place where it's more sustainable and recognizable than it's ever been before."
We still have a long way to go. About 90 percent of the seafood that Americans eat is imported, as seafood expert Paul Greenberg points out in his book American Catch. Additionally, one-third of the seafood that's caught in the U.S. is shipped abroad.