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Cisco (Coregonus artedi, Ojibwa: Okewis)

Cisco? Lake herring, tullibee, bluefin? Aliases aside, this iridescent cutie pie is again haute cuisine, prized for delicate flavors and golden caviar. Stuck in the middle of a Superior food web, silvery cisco dodge predator fish while digesting shrimpy invertebrates. The scrappy survivors occasionally produce super-strong year classes, but it is unclear why. The species has bounced back from overfishing, a smelt issue and other "so-last-century" problems. Cisco can get lost in an extended subfamily of Coregonids, but make no mistake, this is NOT ocean herring.

Coregonus artedi is known by many common names, but its official one is "cisco." Two of its aliases, lake herring and tullibee, are still used by fish shops and buyers around Lake Superior. Ciscoes make up most of the biomass within the Coregonid species complex in Lake Superior. Ciscoes and their kin are part of the Salmonidae family, a family that includes trout, salmon, lake whitefish, and char. C. artedi are sometimes confused with kiyi and bloaters (deepwater ciscoes), two species that are sometimes also sold as smoked ciscoes

About Ciscoes:

  • They are pelagic fish (meaning they live offshore and within the water column (as opposed to on the bottom)).
  • They feed on zooplankton, insects and smaller fish.
  • Lake trout, burbot, northern pike, walleyes, salmon and humans eat them.
  • Adults typically grow to 11-15 inches long, but can reach 24 inches.
  • Adults typically weigh 6 ounces to two pounds, with the largest ciscoes growing to a whopping 5 pounds.
  • They can be long lived; more than 20 years.

When the cool fall temperatures creep in, ciscoes form large spawning schools in shallower waters. Females disperse eggs over wide areas, and the males rush to fertilize them. The fertilized eggs fall to the lake floor and develop over the winter. The eggs then hatch near April or May and the young cisco venture out to satisfy their hunger for zooplankton.

The cisco is a versatile fish; it can be used fresh, smoked, and frozen, and can keep for several months when packaged correctly. Cisco can be steamed, fried, broiled, boiled, microwaved, or baked. The roe are sold as "bluefin caviar" in Scandinavian countries. Fish cakes made with cisco also originated from Scandinavia, most recipes calling for potatoes, eggs, and other ingredients mixed with ground fish and fried in small patties. Cisco can be ground and mixed with other ingredients to form gefilte fish, a Jewish specialty food.

Not only is the cisco a tasty fish, it's also heart healthy! Ciscoes are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce blood pressure, blood triglyceride levels, and the risk of heart attack. Some evidence suggests that fish oils can help with rheumatoid arthritis, cardiac arrhythmias, depression, anxiety, and even cancer prevention.

Fun Fact:

Despite sharing half of a name, lake herring is NOT the same as ocean herring, which is the source of store-bought pickled herring. Ocean herring is a part of the Clupeidea family, which includes sardines, menhadens, alewife, and shads.

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This page last modified on May 04, 2016     © 1996 – 2017 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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