Here's why you don't see more local fish on local menus

Them's good eatin'.

Them's good eatin'. Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Minnesota is the land of 10,000 to 20,000 lakes, depending on who you ask or what day you’re asking.

But glance at almost any local restaurant menu, and you’re bound to encounter halibut, salmon, cod: all oceanic species, all most definitely not from around here. When you do find more local critters, like cisco or whitefish, they tend to be fished out of Canada, or at the very closest, Lake Superior. But what about the bass, walleye, and even sunnies and crappies we all know and love?

Keane Amdahl had that very question. He dug deeper while working for the Minnesota Zoo’s sustainable seafood program Fish Smart and even deeper while writing his Minnesota Historical Society Press cookbook, Lake Fish, Modern Cooking with Freshwater Fish.

“I just want people to start thinking about this,” says Amdahl, who has been a contributing writer for City Pages. “We talk about these local food resources, and how we’re overfishing our oceans, which we are, and this [our many lakes] is a logistical food system resource that’s being overlooked.”

But like most questions that seem like they ought to have a simple answer, there is no easy explanation here. There is a question of supply, but also of demand.

Currently, there are no major fisheries supplying commercial fish out of Minnesota lakes aside from Lake Superior. Red Lake Nation Fishery in northern Minnesota is an Ojibwe-owned and -operated fishery that does provide some amount of walleye, perch, crappie, northern, and whitefish. However, Amdahl points out, the relatively small size of many of these fish can make their processing time-intensive, quickly putting things like bluegill up into the $20 per pound retail price. (That's on par with fish like halibut and salmon, though, so perhaps we just need to start valuing our own a little more?) 

And concerns about overfishing aren’t limited to the oceans. The Department of Natural Resources  regulates a multibillion-dollar recreational fishing industry here in Minnesota, which brings tourism from all over the region, mostly for walleye and largemouth bass.

Still, Amdahl wonders if we might be overlooking the opportunity to raise our own local species in our own lakes. He cited one local farm project that planned to use 80 percent Minnesota-grown food -- to raise shrimp. “So it’s always still ocean species,” he says.

And then there is the issue of demand. Amdahl says most chefs insist that the usual suspects (halibut, salmon, etc.) are the only fish diners will order off a restaurant menu. While some chefs will occasionally run a bluegill or catfish special when they can get ahold of it at a reasonable price, there’s still still no guarantee that your favorite local bistro will regularly put on a good old sunfish fry.

Even when writing his book, Amdahl said that one of the greatest challenges was sourcing. He got some of the species from Canada, but he warns that currently, Canadian-fished lake fish are subject to overfishing concerns, especially northern pike. “It’s not like you can just walk down to Cub and buy many of these.”

There are some interesting local farming efforts, like the Urban Organics Aquaponics tilapia farm, but again, tilapia is not a local species.

“But these are good tools,” says Amdahl, “and maybe we can use them for other species like eelpout.” He adds that eelpout is a stigmatized local species, but it’s simply a freshwater cod, not all that different from the more widely accepted saltwater cod. So why not cook and eat our own (admittedly ugly) cod-like critter?

For now, we can all rejoice in the fact that the Minnesota fishing opener has already begun, and it’s never too complicated an effort to arm yourself with a rod and reel and catch your own. You’re a true-blue Minnesotan, after all, right?

While you’re at it, also arm yourself with Amdahl’s book, available on Amazon or the Minnesota Historical Society website.

I’m extremely partial to the sunfish section, where Hot Fried Sunnies or Sunfish Hash will make you recall exactly why you live here, and nowhere else.