GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Great Lakes partnership has launched a new initiative to help preserve the local whitefish population and maximize the amount of revenue pulled from the waters.
The “100% Whitefish” initiative was launched in Detroit in late September by the Conference of Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers (GSGP). The group represents eight Great Lakes states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec.
John Schmidt, the program manager leading the initiative, said the idea comes from Iceland.
“A few years ago, some members of our team were out in Iceland for a different project. They met with some individuals from the Iceland Ocean Cluster and saw what they were doing around cod and it all snowballed from there,” Schmidt told News 8. “In Iceland in the 1980s and 90s, their cod stocks collapsed, which was kind of the backbone of their fishery-intensive economy. Resource managers were trying to improve the situation, but this group, the Iceland Ocean Cluster, they wanted to try a new approach: How do we do more with less?”
The goal of the initiative is right in the name: to find a way to use more parts of the fish, making the resource more valuable and eliminating waste.
“We are always looking for ways to be creative around the use of our natural resources,” Schmidt said. “(In Iceland) they went from generating $12 per fish to now generating over $3,500 per fish by turning this into a variety of different products.”
Schmidt and the GSGP hope to find a similar return here in North America with the whitefish.
“As you think about the whitefish, the whitefish isn’t just a filet. It can be turned into a variety of things … different food products, smoked fish, dried fish, roe made from fish eggs, fish jerky, but there’s a wider world of product out there that takes a little bit to develop,” Schmidt said. “Things like collagen for use in beverages or medical products, nutraceuticals. They are doing some really cool stuff in Iceland right now, using cod skin for bandages. They’re turning the skin into fish leather, which is a very similar process to tanning bovine leather and it’s actually stronger than bovine leather.”
During the 100% Whitefish Initiative kickoff event the GSGP served up a “head-to-tail” menu of whitefish items, including a Thai-style fish head curry soup and bao buns filed with a whitefish salad.
“It was kind of emblematic of the larger change that we want to see. As I mentioned before, whitefish are not just filets, but thinking creatively about the food is the same as thinking creatively about these other uses,” Schmidt said.
The GSGP hopes to expand the efficiency initiative to other fish, but Schmidt felt it made sense to start with whitefish.
“Whitefish is, historically, a really important fish to the region. That’s one of the reasons why we started with it. Its cultural importance, especially in the culinary sense but its distribution around the Great Lakes, too. It’s a true Great Lakes fish,” he said.